Checking the Nirvana Index: Notes on the Continuing Search for an American Guitar Rock Savior

Pooneh Ghana

Popular music is inherently appropriative. Everything new is made, at least partially, from something borrowed. There’s no escaping this fact. Even something like the industrious specificity of Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey still requires a brief citation and explicit thank you note to Roy Orbison’s cigarette-lit loneliness. And it was Orbison’s own void that was buried somewhere deep in the cracks between the sunny and sedated early 50’s harmonies he’d come up trying to write. But to keep disentangling music history like this is to realize that it is essentially a history of artful, if not always tasteful or morally sound, appropriation. The new song is all the old songs with a different set memories.

Of course, this remains true for any form of art, but it seems far easier to chart all the borrowing and its meaning within the historical progression of American popular music. Or at least it’s more immediately recognizable, our nuance processing faster. We don’t need a doctoral examination to carefully interpret Chief Keef; we just need a remix.

This way of thinking extends to every niche of popular music, since niches themselves are, in this case, appropriations of often highly specific aspects of a larger whole, and right now is about the time each year where we wonder if one particular niche, guitar rock, has finally, unceremoniously reached its reinventive ceiling. The question of Is this the end? usually comes up after a string of promising albums fails to generate any type of unique and culturally titanic figure, or figures, who might allow the genre – which used to be known as “alternative”, but, these days, “guitar” is actually a more specific qualifier – to speak in the type of broadly incisive ways and to the type of broad and incisive audiences it once did. In the mid to late-90’s, this kind of yearly check-in was, or should have been, known as Checking the Nirvana Index. What’s worrying, then, is that in 2015, depending on how you feel about the Foo Fighters, the point of reference hasn’t changed much. We’re still looking for the next Nirvana.

Or, more expressly, we’re still looking for the next Nevermind.

At the moment, the best place to bear witness to the troubling and Messiah-less state of American guitar rock is probably on Desaparecidos’s new political-punk opus, Payola. As the band’s first LP in 13 years – they broke up in 2002 not long after putting out their debut, ReadMusic/SpeakSpanish, due to lead singer Connor Oberst’s commitment to one of his other, and far more successful, projects, Bright Eyes – it’s startlingly, thrillingly alive. It’s a record that has its own elevated pulse, one that’s meant to jolt you from some kind of prolonged sleep. The guitars are cleverly imagined as the stammering and restless souls of police sirens, and the sing-alongs come on like righteous tantrums. For the bulk of its running time, Payola is a record that treats rousing punk anthems like pop-shock therapy.

It’s easy to see, then, why a record like this might incite some savior speculation – it’s already meant to incite so many other things, so why shouldn’t it also receive the most obvious response? Most of this talk has to do with Oberst, who, to his credit, fronts the band with a kind of candid abandon he hasn’t shown since the existential performance art of his Bright Eyes track “At the Bottom of Everything”. From a certain distance, Payola does look like the record everyone’s been waiting for him to make, a kind of rented-garage rock atom bomb that might blow out all the emo-twee cobwebs that ended up turning people off in the first place. There’s a sense that Payola could lead to Oberst’s breakthrough as the type of definitive guitar rock voice his younger years hinted at. That might be something of a stretch, but it’s also impossible to ignore the considerable pleasures of hearing the guy who wrote “Coat Check Dream Song” sing about chaining himself to an ATM for something other than a girl. The trouble is that all the fun feels more like a novelty than anything else, one that lets you forget why Oberst ever chained himself to the ATM in the first place. It’s a blast, but it’s also only that.

It doesn’t help, then, that as a record, Payola is pretty much one big appropriation, of politics, of style, of outrage. While it’s true that this isn’t monumentally surprising coming from a group of white dudes from Nebraska who took their band name from Chilean activists and separatists that were forcefully disappeared in the 70’s and 80’s, the rate of cultural borrowing over these 14 songs, both intentional and unintentional, eventually, crucially, becomes unavoidably distracting, especially once you realize the context of the record’s reception, which has been, almost unanimously, a shrug, a punk rock exemption, and a congratulatory review. Were the record made by another band, one with less immediate visibility, this type of knee-jerk populist pardoning might be a little more understandable, but Desaparecidos aren’t shouting through a basement window anymore. They play on late night shows. They get interviewed by Grantland and the Huffington Post. These guys are being packaged as having something to say, so why are we so quick to forgive the clumsiness of how they’re saying it?

This is where Payola, at least for me, really breaks down as both a record and a career statement for Oberst. Back in 2002, the streamlined anarcho-punk that Desaparecidos were playing on ReadMusic/SpeakSpanish was believable; it still made sense. So much sense, actually, that bands like Against Me! (Laura Jane Grace shows up to sing backup on a Payola track) and Anti-Flag ended up beaming their rants through a Paul Westerberg prism and brought the subgenre to a fever pitch during Bush’s second term, the absurdity of their post-partisan howling still plausible in the face of a seemingly far less plausible administration. It’s this specific type of punk that Oberst and his bandmates are going for: the not-so-subtly joyous celebration of dissidence that conceptualizes the history of protests and riots in this country as a never-ending party. But in the wake of the incendiary and traumatically illuminating events that took place in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson and Charleston, this kind of songwriting comes off in a way that makes the record seem worse than tasteless. It’s anachronistic.

While Payola does represent a version of what Desaparecidos were playing back in 2002, it’s clear that even those rants would make more sense right now as a re-release. They could recall the absurdity of the Bush era without having to reckon with a decidedly less absurd future. What we have instead, though, is a more agile collection of the band’s own recycled materials that were made into something more amusing in their absence. It’s fun, but, again, it’s only that.

The biggest problem with this variety of protest music in 2015 is that it comes off, rightly, as overly privileged. Of course these guys would have fun at a riot; they have nothing to really lose. The problem with Connor Oberst writing this kind of protest music in 2015, however, is much more unsettling. He’s an assumed, and, to be fair, quite accomplished, authoritative poetic mind, so when he sings on the record’s first track, “Every bloody pacifist concedes the truth/If one must die to save the ninety-nine/Maybe it’s justified/The left is right/We’re doomed”, his casual invocation of a lifeless, politicized body should logically, currently, be taken as a perverse non-sequitur. Instead, it’s met with the closest drums and guitars can get to applause.

From there, Oberst’s writing only gets murkier. And as he starts to ventriloquize a few overt racists from Maricopa, Arizona without ever pondering his own race (“MariKKKopa”) or bemoan social media activism without wondering what kind of “involvement” his own music promotes (“Slacktivist”), the profundity of his failures as a possible guitar rock savior begins to weigh heavier than disappointment. It starts to feel more and more like irrelevance.

In an interview with Spin, Denver Dalley, the band’s guitarist, said that the majority of the writing on Payola came out of nightly conversations the group had around campfires during a retreat to Minnesota. When you take the songs in this context, the one that puts those same five white dudes from Omaha around a campfire in the middle of nowhere, floating political ideologies and trying to pair them to some crude riffs, the record actually gains a comforting insularity. You realize that their worst appropriation is just some other dude’s limited perspective. These guys never had plans to fight any power. They just wanted to plug in Kumbaya.

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The best song on Payola by a couple of miles is “Ralphy’s Cut”, a deeply personal and desperately affecting portrait of a friend of the band battling cystic fibrosis and a broken healthcare system. On it, the guitars still rage and the drums still approximate the sound a few million raised fists might make in a sandstorm, but it’s Oberst’s writing and escalating delivery that allows the righteous hurricane to find land. “We got to let it go, boys,” he sings near the end, his voice draining itself of life. “You know we’re all on hold/Till they call you back.” He’s talking here, specifically, about his friend waiting on a doctor’s call, but what he’s really tapping into are the realities of collective suffering. It’s a devastating set of lines, a reminder of the atomic potential Oberst still has as a songwriter, and it’s followed by one of the most cathartic moments on any record that’s come out this year. For the last 30 seconds of the song, from somewhere not as easily identifiable as wherever he was before, Oberst screams. Or at least that’s the best way to describe the sound he makes: it starts as a scream. Then it opens itself up and becomes something elemental, something foundational, the air you’re breathing, the 10% of you that isn’t water. It works so well because Oberst is willing to hold the moment just long enough for you to pick out every emotion he’s going for: the fear, the grief, the injustice, so that when the music finally cuts, the screaming has started to feel like something that’s coming from inside of you.

These are the types of moments, it seems, that guitar rock is still capable of offering, ones that displace you enough that you forget about the concept of history almost entirely, that remind you Nirvana can be more than a band name. One of the more consistent architects of these kinds of moments who also has a record out this year is Dylan Baldi. As the brains and bile behind the midwestern band Cloud Nothings, Baldi made a name for himself writing blunt and often elliptical hooks that he would repeat in his songs until they became their own branch of psychology. That band’s most recent two records, 2012’s cataclysmic Attack on Memory and 2014’s slender masterwork Here and Nowhere Else, successfully imagined a late 90’s where grunge never went stale and was instead assimilated as a base ingredient in the emo revolution. This year, Baldi decided to tether his transcendental lonerisms to the volatile surf rock of Nathan Williams’s Wavves for a collaborative LP that the two cut, allegedly, over the course of just a couple of weeks. The record, which has the very Baldian title No Life for Me, was released suddenly online a few weeks ago with its cover art doing most of the explaining.

As a collaboration between two of guitar rock’s most compulsively listenable songwriters, No Life For Me is pretty much a mess. Many of the songs seem to be made up of the spare parts of completely different wholes, with some tracks ending so suddenly that it seems like Baldi and Williams just gave up and moved on, and Williams takes the castoff nature of these kinds of projects at face value and shows up almost exclusively as the kind of droning fatalist he typically writes songs to get away from. A little bit of No Life for Me sounds like Nirvana if Dave Grohl was a drum machine. A lot of it sounds like apathetic Hüsker Dü. Practically none of it sounds like something you’ll still be listening to in a month or two.

What No Life for Me does have, though, are Dylan Baldi hooks, and that’s what keeps it relevant even a few weeks out. To hear the Cloud Nothings frontman take the brick of music he co-created and pull out inspired hooks is to understand the seriousness of his talent. It’s like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of another rabbit. It makes you realize that this is a guy who can find a hook in anything: a Fugazi homage, his own neuroses, that brick I mentioned earlier. Take, for example, what he does on the record’s title track. After a hammering guitar line and a typically sadsack and groan-y Wiliams verse, Baldi appears, parts the charcoal clouds, and sings, over and over again, “My Energy/My Energy is/I long to be here.” There’s absolutely no context for what he’s talking about. Williams hasn’t given him any, and neither has the record, but the more you listen to the song, the less specifics seem to matter.

This is the power of a Baldi hook: its opaqueness, over time, can develop an aloof sort of enlightenment. The best of them, like the one on No Life’s title track, or the one he conjured for Here and Nowhere Else’s jumper cable closer “I’m Not a Part of Me”, hint at something abstract, a feeling that isn’t always, simply, felt, but, instead, known, like the way we might say we know the heat of the sun. The hooks repeat themselves, easily and incessantly, until Baldi’s original subject has dissolved completely, and they becomes yours, each one meaning whatever you need it to mean. For me, there’s always been something vaguely religious about listening to Baldi’s music, like punk spirituals, and playing a song until it’s totally unfolded and flat. And when I get to that point, I can usually see what I think Baldi had been trying to write. His hooks are the vacant wildness of Midwestern highways.

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Other than Dylan Baldi, the most promising and newish guitar rock loyalist might also be the genre’s most immediately conventional. Alicia Bognanno, who fronts a band from Nashville called Bully and wears her hair in music videos like a bleached reflection of Kurt Cobain’s pep rally look, might’ve been better known before this year (see: last year) as a prodigious music engineering student who moonlit playing easygoing garage pop anthems with her friends. But after Feels Like, Bully’s first proper LP, which came out in June and built on a handful of the band’s debut EP tracks like a bonfire builds on kindling, Bognanno’s profile has markedly, necessarily, shifted to something far more ecstatic: Blogs are beginning to whisper. The word “Nevermind” is showing up in reviews.

These Nirvana comparisons are inevitable and inescapable, even if they’re not entirely helpful. Feels Like was recorded – and produced, by Bognanno herself – at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, an explicit monument to an era of recording that bred more than a few Neverminds. The fact that Bognanno was an intern at Electrical Audio, too, before getting the chance to record there, only adds to the notion that she might be too much a student of the genre to ever do what’s necessary to extend its relevance. This is a theory made even more persuasive when you hear something like “Picture” or “Reason”, a couple of tracks from Feels Like that could’ve been piped into the studio from an Albini session circa 1993, and wonder, briefly, whether or not Bognanno knows that she’s singing karaoke.

But all of that thinking is, frankly, bullshit, because there isn’t a songwriter in any genre right now who is more aware of their stylistic appropriation, and its place in their own music, than Bognanno. To overlook this is to ignore something as bracingly lethal as “I Remember”, the track that opens Bully’s debut LP like a cloud of arrows raining from a dimming sky. “I remember,” Bognanno screams, her voice the sound of gravity, “I remember that box of letters/I remember that naked photo/And I remember things getting better.” Just about every line in the song is this mundane, but that mundanity is the whole point. It ups the degree of difficulty so Bognanno can show off her vocal fitness level. For her, “I Remember” might as well be a songwriting exercise, the backing track its resistance setting. How do you write something from the perspective of a rancorous ex without hurling a single insult? Easy, just make the arrows out of memories.

There’s actually a great video of Bognanno recording the vocals for “I Remember” that Bully posted on their Vevo Channel a little over a month before Feels Like’s release date, and it seems relevant to talk about those two minutes and 11 seconds here for a couple of reasons. The first is that their running time represents one of the most vivid depictions of someone sharpening the English language into a viable inventory of Homeric weaponry that you’ll find streaming, legally, on the Internet for free. The second has to do with the way Bognanno, after getting someone in the booth named John’s attention to start the music, puts her head down, calmly finds the switch inside of herself that has to be flipped to “On”, and then casually re-locates the audio-capturing device in front of her that I’m assuming is labeled “Fireproof”. If you haven’t watched the video yet, go watch it. It might make you think about Jules Winfield telling John Travolta, “Come on, let’s get into character.” It also might make you think of the rest of Jules Winfield’s lines in that movie. But what it’ll definitely get you thinking about is what’s next, for the song, for the record, for Bognonno.

Some of those answers are already clear. “I Remember” ends with the kind of searing impact – actualized, here, by what Bognonno does to the word “Everything” – its starting gate recklessness promised, and Feels Like never quite recovers from it. The rest of the record is spent, at least in part, moving on. Not just from that one relationship, but from everything, the oddly compelling childhood trauma (“Six”), the unused college degrees (“Trying”), the brainfreeze (“Brainfreeze”). The one thing Feels Like never moves on from, though, is the garage, and over the course of the record, the light scuzz and crunch of its comprehensively borrowed sound becomes something remarkably unfamiliar; it becomes pedestrian, the sound of a reel of film flitting along, capturing whatever’s going on in front of it.

And what’s going on in front of it is Bognonno, a songwriter who earnestly refers to both Patti Smith and Paul Westerberg in interviews as her favorite poets. For her, all the noise she’s screaming over doesn’t have to stand in, as it has for the better part of two decades, for some kind of existential danger in the world. It can just be the world, all of it, the danger and the shelter, the backseat and the high school parking lot. For a good bit of Feels Like, this is exactly what Bognonno is able to do. She drags guitar rock from its self-imposed brooder phase and makes it approachable again, comforting, even. And this gives her serrated writing something to cut into, a status quo that can still believably get fucked up. Something like the first verse of “Trying” (“I question everything/My focus, my figure, my sexuality/And how much it matters or why it would mean anything”) winds up working so well in her hands because you get the idea that it’s her own music that’s trying to marginalize her as she sings it. To write songs this way is to understand how extensively guitar rock has been internalized into American popular culture and to embrace the genre’s relative dullness anyway as something worth salvaging, even if it’s as a patriarchal stand-in. This might make Bognonno something more indispensible in 2015 than a savior: a revisionist. The new song, perhaps, is all the old songs with a different conception of history.

(Photo credit: Pooneh Ghana)

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Eyes Wide Rut: Unedited Thoughts on What to Make of Tom Delonge’s First Solo LP

DelongeGuitar

This post appears stripped of its intended form here.

  1. On Monday, Tom Delonge shared To the Stars… Demos, Odds and Ends, his first release since being publically Eduardo Saverin-ed from Blink-182 by the band’s other two members, Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker, back in January. It’s an 8-song collection made up primarily of tracks Delonge had been holding on to for the band’s planned seventh album. As an LP, To the Stars… proves to be largely incoherent and forgettable, the kind of post-breakup release that there is a whole lot of groan-inducing precedent for (think mid-eighties Roger Waters or whatever Billy Corgan might have planned for 2016). But I’m not so sure we should be worried about discussing To the Stars… as an LP, because, as of Wednesday night, it’s barely one; I’m much more interested in discussing it as an indicator of what Blink-182 means to pop music in 2015 and as the first official artifact of Tom Delonge’s cultural legacy. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to pull at these two ideas a little. I put all these thoughts in the form of a list to at very least give them the physical appearance of coherence.
  2. The more I listen to To the Stars…, the more the 8 demos start to sound like they belong to different albums, as if each was once a kind of proposed direction.
  3. If you start thinking about them in this way, it’s pretty easy to see the kind of records that would have formed around them. The LP “Circle-Jerk-Pit” imagines is a kind of East Coast hardcore-influenced rebirth record that might’ve made Ian MacKaye reach for the bottle while “New World” would have been fleshed out as a record that pulled closed the emo curtain framing 2003’s Blink-182 and might’ve been half-decent. These are pitches more than anything else. That none of them are fully fleshed out or overly promising is far less important to our discussion than their basic state of existence.
  4. Brief side note: There’s also a song on To the Stars… called, “The Invisible Parade”, that sounds like something Tom must’ve pitched in every single Blink writing session only to be told something along the lines of, “We can definitely use that on the next one, or for the deluxe edition.”
  5. The existence of these songs tells us two things. First, it tells us that Blink-182 had very little idea of what they wanted their future iteration to sound like, and, second, it tells us that Blink-182 also had very little idea of what it was about their past iterations that made them so successful.
  6. If we look at this broadly enough, there are really only three iterations of Blink-182. There is the insanely popular version of the band that existed from the beginning of time until February of 2005, when Tom’s lack of interest and refusal to keep a steady touring pace caused their first indefinite hiatus. Then there’s the group that got together in 2009 to do a reunion tour and record an EP and whatever Neighborhoods is supposed to be. And finally there’s the current iteration, which is made up of Mark, Travis, and whatever pop-punk heavy has a spare 45 minutes to learn Tom’s guitar and vocal parts.
  7. Of these three, only one iteration is worth exploring at length: the band’s first. This is the iteration that recorded “Dammit” and followed it up Enema of the State, that took big studio polish and scrubbed at the inherently dubious genre of pop-punk until all that was left was they hyphen. It’s also the iteration that Luke Winkie, writing for LA Weekly in 2012, referred to as “one of the most important bands of all time” with a straight face. I’m not convinced that this opinion will make it too far into the 21st century un-amended, but let’s ignore that for now and assume that Winkie is correct, because he just might be.
  8. If you’re having a hard time assuming Winkie is correct, then allow the rest of these notes to, at the very least, work under the assumption that Blink-182 is one of the most important pop acts of the past 20 years. This is inarguably true; any guitar-heavy anthem that’s come out since 1999 is in some way an echo of the Blink formula. Hell, the cymbal-crashes on Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” even sound like they were ripped straight from a Take of Your Pants and Jacket demo. You can’t talk about how pop music has shifted over the past 20 years without talking about Blink-182 just like you can’t discuss how the movie industry has changed without mentioning The Rock. Both have developed their own gravitational pull.
  9. More to this point, the best way to listen to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” is to imagine it as the first chapter in a narrative that ends with “What’s My Age Again?”.
  10. Around the time that Luke Winkie’s article was published, the critical discourse regarding Blink-182 had begun to brighten. Right now, it’s becoming luminous. Their name is beginning to be regularly – and, most important, favorably – checked in discussions of emo-revivalism and any guitar-rock LP that clocks in at under a half hour. They’ve shed the incest joke-hawking personas that haunted their live shows – possibly because a new crop of critics is coming up at the moment who never got the chance to see Blink-182 at their most crass – and have finally, crucially, been afforded a legacy.
  11. This legacy, however, is far from complete. For one thing, Blink-182 is still discussed almost exclusively as a pop-punk band, a classification that implies the alienation of the term’s first half from its second. This has always required critics to try and have two simultaneous discussions about the band’s influence, in indie music and then in pop, when all they really needed was one. Blink-182 has been ubiquitous for long enough now that their influence has saturated everything. There’s no need to keep things separated anymore. Everyone wants to be as big as Blink-182.
  12. The pop-punk tag also ignores the fact that Hoppus and Delonge, the band’s two major founding members, had always been natural pop songwriters who simply needed to get out from under the California punk scene’s floor grease to be able to put those instincts to their proper use.
  13. This seems like a good place to mention that the cannibalizing tendencies of the 90s California punk scene have never really left Blink-182. They signed with MCA at a time when the word “sellout” still had a few drops of genuine venom left in it, and the decision to go through with the deal anyway ended up contributing to the band’s first drummer, Scott Raynor, exiting the group. He would be replaced, mid-tour, by Travis Barker.
  14. Barker, it would turn out, became fundamental to Blink-182’s leap into the stratosphere. He provided the band with all the muscles and connective tissue Tom and Mark didn’t really know they needed to keep their erratic bursts of skeletal melody standing upright. With all respect to Jerry Finn, it’s actually Barker’s work on Enema of the State that’s doing most of the transformation. He gets some big stadium moments – like the first ten seconds of “Dumpweed” when his cymbals sound like they’re hyping a heavyweight title fight or on the tenth to twelfth time he laps everybody else in the recording studio during “Don’t Leave Me” – but the best work Barker does on the record comes in its margins, when it sounds like he’s hammering the songs into place. Go back and check out his drum fills on something like “What’s My Age Again?” or “Going Away to College”, and you’ll start to hear them pre-emptively squashing pockets of radio static.
  15. There’s something so brutally restorative about the way Barker can hold the pieces of a song together, as if he’s using a sledgehammer to put together a jigsaw puzzle. He’s so good at this pop aggression thing that eventually people likeRob Aston and Corey Taylor came calling to see if he could figure them out, too. That he almost did is evidence enough that his conception of millennial pop should figure largely in Blink-182’s legacy.
  16. For more evidence of everything in the above note, see the band’s live version of “Carousel” from The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show where Barker leads off a high school talent show staple by introducing you to the charging cavalry of your adolescent shame.
  17. Without Travis Barker, Blink-182 could have become Simple Plan. They also might have been New Found Glory.
  18. Of the two major collaborators Tom Delonge lost upon exiting Blink-182, Travis Barker was the only one who still seemed essential musically. He’s the one who still might’ve been able to get something compelling, or at the very least listenable out of the distant, increasingly opaque guitarist. The chances of this were already slim, with the 8 songs on To the Stars… making it clear that Delonge has very little interest left in playing pop music, but if anyone could have found a way to help him write his You Are the Quarry, it was Barker.
  19. A better comparison might have cited Green Day’s quasi-political re-emergence behind American Idiot, but Delonge is closer to Morrissey at this point than Billie Joe Armstrong.
  20. Mark Hoppus is actually the closest analog to Billie Joe, but he is also, by far, the least interesting member of Blink-182.
  21. Another brief side note: Mark and Tom split Blink’s frontman duties, usually by song, which means their catalogue breaks down most easily into three categories: Tom Delonge songs, Mark Hoppus songs, and Tom and Mark songs.
  22. If you listened to Blink-182 in high school and identified the most with Mark Hoppus songs, you were either stuck in some kind of profound denial or having an unhealthy amount of sex. Mark Hoppus is not the member of Blink-182 that you’re supposed to identify with. He’s the unattainable one; the guy who walks into a movie scene with two girls rubbing his chest and leaves it with four. You’re supposed to wish you could be him, but you’re not supposed to understand him. He’s the guy who wrote the douchiest college boyfriend song of all time and then introduced it at shows as a “love song”. It’s probably for the best that you don’t understand him.
  23. But Mark Hoppus wants you to understand Mark Hoppus. That’s what makes him passably interesting. He’s a cliché who is aware enough of his own banality that he knows he has to find ways around it.
  24. Mark Hoppus is Ben Affleck.
  25. The best thing Mark Hoppus ever did, then, is make Tom Delonge his Matt Damon. The only reason any of Mark’s songs work lyrically is because Tom is standing next to him vouching for their validity. Something like the teenage poetry of “Adam’s Song” becomes much more compelling if you can imagine that it only came about after Delonge finally convinced Mark to express his feelings about a friend’s death creatively. A similar thing could be said about the believability of the sad-sack loner Mark tries to inhabit on most of Dude Ranch, but let’s move on.
  26. Tom Delonge is the member of Blink-182 you’re supposed to identify with.
  27. You are not supposed to like that you identify with Tom Delonge.
  28. Every Tom Delonge song does one of two things. It either (1) makes a creepy guy seem legitimate or (2) makes a legitimate guy seem creepy. The majority of his songs fall in the second category, but both are crucial to understanding his appeal. He was the guy who could build an anthem around the lyric, “I need a girl that I can train”, and talk you into being mad at the girl who made him this way.
  29. You could say this kind of thing is problematic, and I wouldn’t argue, but I’d rather call it nostalgic. Every experience Delonge had while writing songs for Blink-182 was filtered through his 15-year-old self and matched up with three or four power chords. He was stunted emotionally, but in a way you could understand, even if you were only 15 yourself. It also helped that all of his songs were all delivered in a vulnerable snark that made it seem like he was trying to play everything off as a joke. You felt bad for him before you realized you were him.
  30. Tom Delonge will be the member of Blink-182 with the strongest indie legacy, and I’m sure of this because it’s already starting to happen.
  31. What To the Stars… reminds us of is that there are a whole lot of bands making better Tom Delonge music right now than Tom Delonge. There’s the (“don’t call it an”) emo revival I mentioned earlier and then there are bands like The Front Bottoms and You Blew It! who are taking Delonge’s snarky-awkward binary and multiplying it by Craig Finn. Even Modern Baseball is fronted by two Delonge-types, and it turns out they wrote the best Blink-182 song in over a decade.
  32. Just because a legacy is in place, doesn’t mean that we should move on from the guy who put it there. Especially if that guy is Tom Delonge.
  33. We should not be forgetting about Tom Delonge.
  34. Because Tom Delonge is fascinating. Every review this guy gives should be aired on national TV. He’s kind of like Kanye West only where Kanye can become incoherent while discussing something that should be accessible, Delonge regularly becomes incoherent while discussing things that are themselves inaccessible. Here’s just one gem from a recent interview he did with Paper Magazine on his research into the existence of extraterrestrial life: “I’ve literally read 200 books on the subject, and I don’t spend my time looking at UFO reports or talking to little green men. I’m way past that.”
  35. Another gem, for fans of the first gem: “You take Christianity: a guy named Jesus came and died on the cross for everybody’s sins. That’s not as big of a story as what types of intelligences are living across the universe.”
  36. He’s also promised to release 15 novels over the next four years. I can’t possibly stress enough how much you should be paying attention to whatever this body of works turns out to be. These are just a little shy of upper-level porn star numbers, and he’s applying them to the most challenging human art form.
  37. It’s also crucial to remember that Delonge was the one who was completely unafraid to go full pop on the supposedly “dark” self-titled album Blink-182 released back in 2003, and each of his contributions ended up being fascinating for their escalation of disaster. He actually had some idea of how to write straight-faced pop songs – “Asthenia” still stands as his best song about his love/all-consuming fear of space – but had no idea how to plug his lyrics into them. You’re going to want to be watching if he ever gets another shot at recording something like “Always” because whatever would end up coming out of those recording sessions could be a supernova of awkwardness.
  38. To the Stars… doesn’t have any songs like this because To the Stars… is pretty much the equivalent of burning an ex’s laundry on their front lawn.
  39. To the Stars… is also, inarguably, a warning sign, but one that should make us watch more closely, that should make us ask, “A warning for what?”

Full Frontal: The Unedited Mumblr Interview

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.