Last week I interviewed Nick Morrison, frontman to Philly’s resident inherent grunge band Mumblr, for Rock on Philly. You can see the published version over on the site. Here’s the unedited version:
Philly introverts Mumblr are making a new sound. They call it “fuzz punk” and manage the noise less to fit a genre tag than to lead you into a cerebral annex where their collective neuroses can converge. A more apt name for what they’re making might actually be “inherent grunge”, but that type of cataloguing doesn’t much matter, especially on their debut LP, Full of Snakes, which, at its best, plays exactly like the canned screams of someone’s crackling neurons.
That someone is frontman Nick Morrison, whose regularly erupting yawp pretty much renders form beside the point; you stop thinking about the shape of the volcano once you realize there’s lava leaking from its top. Rock on Philly had the chance to catch up with Nick earlier this week and talk about the band’s first album, new music, and his love for Philadelphia:
RoP: So we’re about 5 months removed from the Full of Snakes release. You guys have been exhaustively active behind it, especially around Philly, and I’m wondering if your relationship with the 17 tracks has changed in any big ways over this period of time, since the release and all the way through the shows you’ve played in support of it. The album is a massive piece of work, one that both requires and rewards revisits from the listener, but what’s this experience like from the other side? Has your relationship with the album changed in any perceptible way?
Nick: Full of Snakes was a really long process that went through so many stages. We attempted to write a coming of age album and, in the process, matured a lot musically. The album more or less acts as a giant mixtape for us at this point. Songs we had been itching to release. It is pretty massive (laughs). We all enjoy it for what it is, but are really excited for the next full-length release. It should be out by the end of summer.
RoP: I also want to ask about the album’s cover, which gloriously features you guys posing naked in a shower, that black bar carrying title and band name narrowly finding a way to make everything safe for work. It’s a kind of ecstatic picture; it’s also more than a little intoxicated (even if you guys are in fact appearing sober in it). But then the album takes its title from the way your body moves the day after a night of heavy drinking, essentially the polar opposite feeling of what’s pictured. Since you guys put a lot of contextual weight on your album covers, most notably the haunting image that introduced bang bang for its understated metaphoric heft, where does Full of Snakes’s cover place the album? Why start it drunk and naked in a shower?
Nick: (Laughs) We spent so much time trying to come up with really “profound” and thematically involved image to represent this album. We were drinking tons of tequila one night and drunkenly decided to take this picture. When we woke up we liked it so much we decided to keep it. We thought it looked like the epitome of a group of kids basking in their “life will never end” immaturity. And it personally reminds me of that time in all of our lives. We are definitely still like that, but now we do adult things, like pay our bills on time and wash the dishes.
RoP: I mentioned earlier that Full of Snakes is a massive piece of work, not just because it has 17 tracks to it, but also because it’s got this restless style and thematic complexity that demand to be reckoned with. Was this what you set out to make when you started the writing process? Was the goal always this kind of bigness?
Nick: Yea definitely. I’m a huge proponent of thematic weight in an album. Something that skirts the line of entertaining, emotional and thought provoking. I’m not 100% sure we achieved it as much as we’d like to, but, like I said before, it holds a special place in our hearts. It, for us, pretty accurately portrays our confusion and immaturity we dealt with while trying to transition into adults (laughs).
RoP: As with any piece of work worth reckoning with, there’s a good amount of incendiary stuff on the album, the most widely misunderstood of which seems to be the album’s racialized lyrics. Would you mind talking a little about the intent and import of these lyrics as they fit into the work as a whole?
Nick: Yea for sure. They both talk about my personal, internal struggles with race and sexuality in our society. I used to take it very personally when people would call me a “nigger” or use the word “faggot” or any other number of slurs. The older I got, the less I cared. For me, identity is an incredible thing. I think it’s important to understand your identity when it comes to defining who you are.
However, I truly believe that when you let people control, mock, or assign your identity then you run the risk of questioning it to the point where it strips you of your pride. That being said, I wish people wouldn’t be so concerned with their identity. People are people. Simple as that. Telling other people what to think is wrong. Being righteous means doing what is right. You don’t have to make other people see your way. If they see it themselves then it means more. That’s what I believe.
As far as those songs go, they are real life events and feelings. On “White Devil,” for example, I dated a girl whose parents didn’t let us see each other because of my race. In “Black Chicks,” I had people tell me I wasn’t “black enough” to be considered black. That’s where my problem with identity is. People will deny it and control it. Don’t let them. Be who you are. Sorry for my rant (laughs).
RoP: What are your thoughts on the way these lyrics have been received and misperceived?
Nick: Well I think people tend to take things too literally, instead of understanding the feelings. Sometimes the way you say something is equally as important as what you are saying. I’m not particularly trying to say things that can be misunderstood. Honestly, I am surprised every time I hear that (laughs). At the same time I have talked to a lot of people who claim these songs helped them through really tough times. That’s probably the best compliment anyone can get artistically. My goal has always been the hope that people can relate. No matter who you are. So hearing that as a reaction is incredibly positive and even validating for me. (Smiling) It turns my brown skin red.
RoP: Moving on to your most recent release, a split EP shared with Clique, Ghost Gum, and Loose Tooth, to which you guys contributed the song “Champion”, there seems to be a distinct shift in approach. Now I know you guys only had one song on this split, and that talking about it too much will veer this interview sharply into unnecessary scrutiny, but this song moves in such a cool way, with that detached intro eventually finding a power source and using it to dismantle its indie walls, that I couldn’t just gloss over it. Where did this song come from, and how did it end up getting used on the split?
Nick: “Champion” is actually going to be a track on our new LP coming this summer. It just happened to be the first song we finished, and we figured it would be a nice choice based on the other bands on the release. We are currently writing stuff that is a little more intricate musically. My current goal is to write “mangled” pop songs; taking pop melodies and creating songs without a standard “verse-chorus-verse-chorus” structure. We’ll see how that goes.
RoP: You guys are based out of Kensington, which is a part of Philly that, when you’re in it, feels particularly ignored. There’s the infamous drug corner at Kensington and Somerset, but what’s most striking about the area is how much of it is overwhelmed by symptoms of the city’s poverty. It can feel like a forgotten part of the city, as if Kensington were removed from all its maps. How does basing yourselves in this part of the city inform the version of Philadelphia that appears in your music?
Nick: Ignored is a good word to describe Kensington. We also live like 3 blocks from Kensington and Somerset (laughs). We have lived there over the years because of how incredibly cheap it is and have stayed there because of its isolation from the rest of the city. Some parts are super cool. There is a strong sense of community, I think, because of that fact that it is largely ignored and impoverished. Residents look out for each other because there is a high rate and the police seem to have more or less abandoned the area. It kind of polices itself. If somebody steals from a corner store, that person’s identity is shared amongst the residents and other business owners and they are from then on labeled as a thief. It’s old school. We like it (laughs). All in all, as a musician or artist or whatever, your environment will all always shape you. We don’t hang out in the nice parts of the city because we can’t afford to, simple as that, therefore we don’t talk about it because we don’t really know about it. We just work there (laughs).
RoP: As a follow up, do you feel a duty to present this part of the city? On Full of Snakes, you guys actually have a song named “Philadelphia” that opens with the lyric “It’s trash, but it’s ours/Abandoned with no past”. This isn’t a Philadelphia we’ve ever really encountered before in any genre of music. This one has no past, no history. It seems fictional, but it’s utterly not. Why did you decide to make such a point of recasting Philadelphia in this way?
Nick: Like I said, it’s because we become a reflection of what we are around. If you are a generally nice person yet hang out with bullies, chances are you will either find new friends or absorb some of their traits. Not always, but sometimes, especially at a young age. We chose to stay. Therefore we are a reflection of our environment. It’s easy to write about because it constantly reminds us that it is there. At some point, each one of us has either bought drugs from the neighborhood (contributing to the “local economy”), gotten our ass kicked and robbed, were kept up by gun shots, street fights and domestic disputes in the middle of the road. I don’t intend to glorify it at all; it kind of just is what it is you know?
RoP: As a punk band in Philly, you’re currently part of a cresting scene that’s been drawing eyes from all over the country for a while now. There isn’t one niche that’s booming within Philly punk; it seems as if all of them are being uncovered together. Can you talk a little bit about how the Philly punk scene has developed since you guys first started interacting with it, even before Mumblr?
Nick: Damn that’s a hefty tale. Well Scott, our drummer, actually got Ian, our guitarist, and myself into the Philly scene. We just went to shows during college because it was stuff we were interested in. I think it’s an incredibly unique scene. There is so much community and fan love and people who actually give a shit. It’s amazing. We as Mumblr are in a weird place because we have kind of been existing outside of the scene. Which is cool. But we have so many friends playing music in the city that we play a lot of shows. We are very fortunate to be here during the time where some people from outside the city are finally giving Philly credit for the awesome, awesome musicians that live here. Not that we need it (laughs). Everyone would still be doing it regardless.
RoP: Last question: What are your thoughts on the current state of Philly’s punk scene and where do you see it going from here?
Nick: Well, we have been saying for years, in jest mostly, that Philly could be the next 1991 Seattle. I don’t think any city could exist like Seattle did back then on the same scale, but I think Philly could be a modern version of that. The community is so dedicated and the musicians are so talented. I’ll say it ten million times, we all consider ourselves very thankful to be surrounded by such amazing people, musicians, as well as people who go to shows. I think its time Philly was recognized for it. We have nothing but love.