Lagwagon: Back On The Wagon
Nine years is a long time. In 2005 the much loved Soundwave Festival was Perth exclusive and Californian punk rockers Lagwagon had just released what would be their last new album for almost a decade. But in 2014, Lagwagon are back with their new record Hang, while getting ready to return for the 2015 installment of the increasingly popular Soundwave. We spoke to Joey Cape, the band’s frontman and punk rocker extraordinaire, to discuss this new album, wanting to know why 2014 was the time to emerge from this hiatus and how the band has matured since their formation in the early ‘90s. It was time to find out why the band was finally back on the wagon (hopefully my sense of humour, like the band, develops over the next nine years).
Your new album Hang has been almost a decade in the making. Was there a point where you seriously questioned whether or not Lagwagon would put out another full-length?
Yes and no – I think there’s always the question of whether you’re going to do another record, because even though you want to and have the best intentions to make another record the stars have to align. There has to be a day where you feel like you have an understanding of what the band should be doing, and when that happens then it sort of comes naturally. But without that, you’d be fortunate and sometimes when a long period of time goes by and I’m not feeling the inspiration and the band isn’t either, then you have to wait. It takes a long time for us to get inspired again. It’s the collective identity the band has – and as the band is evolving as an entity, the individuals in the band are evolving too. So it’s a bit more difficult to see where you are and who you are. But if you watch those things and catch those things, I think you can make a record that has conviction.
Was it something that’s been a long time coming or did it stem from a sudden drive to record new material? What made 2014 the right time to come back?
The reason is songwriting. I’ve written and recorded many other records in that time period, but none of the songs that I was writing seemed appropriate for Lagwagon. So it was more of the latter: you just kind of wake up one day and know what the identity of the band is in its current state. We’ve been down that road before where we forced things and it just doesn’t bring out our strongest material, so it’s best to wait. A couple years ago when we were touring for the box set Putting Music In Its Place, which was all old material and it really fired up the band, brought some chemistry back and some synergy back to the table. It just clicked one day and we knew what to do, but was when the process started – it took a few years to put it all together
Despite the gap in Lagwagon releases you’ve certainly kept busy in the meantime, with Bad Astronaut, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, and your solo project. Do you ever find it overwhelming to be working on so many projects? Before you even sit down to write, are you conscious of which act you’re writing for?
Generally what’s coming to me, what’s on my plate, is my priority so it’s not all that overwhelming, it’s a matter of changing hats. I stockpile the songs that I like for anyone. I write and make these recordings I want and when it feels right to write for a particular band or when I’m playing with that band on tour, that’s the band that takes priority and the one I have to focus on. But it’s really not that bad, it’s a matter of changing the psychology of it.
Do you have a different creative process depending on which band you’re working on?
Oh definitely, they operate differently as bands to begin with. I think in general, in the past Bad Astronaut is a much more studio creativity-oriented band. We spend a lot of time experimenting with sounds in the studio, whereas Lagwagon is a way more organic thing. We just play together live and try to figure out how everyone wants to do it. There’s a lot of collaboration, and it all comes together in a very loud state. With Bad Astronaut, we turn the volume way down and we’re trying different things while we’re recording. I think Bad Astronaut never actually rehearsed as a whole band – we certainly never did when Derrick [Plourde] was alive. We never played shows or anything; it was a total studio band. It really depends on the band. The Gimme Gimmes, that’s the holiday band. That band is no work [laughs]. No rehearsal, no work. We just get together in the studio, say, “Does this work? Cool!” and hit record. It’s almost no work that it’s almost funny. Lagwagon we work really hard on the material and it’s very collaborative, especially on the new record.
With taking on the producer role again, has your approach to capturing sound changed much over the years? Are you the sort to embrace new technology when it comes along in that regard?
No, I think for the most part the idea, for me, when I’m producing a Lagwagon record or what involvement I have in the production of it is to keep it as close to the way the band sounds. I understand that band and there’s very little technique involved. It’s just, ‘Let’s get the best recordings of our songs that we can capture and try and make a record that sounds very similar to what we play live’. For that record, we recorded the demos for the entire record live. When we were finished, there was a long period of time where we re-recorded the songs over and over again until we had it just right, and we ended up with this whole record. It could have been released the way it was but what I did with it, I went through and tempo-mapped it. It took about four days – I had to tempo-map every bar of that record, all the speed changes that happen even within a bar, so that we could just go through and duplicate and basically replace the original sounds with better recorded sounds. That’s probably the only thing with a technique I used, because that’s a good approach to get the sound exactly as the band would play it live. There’s a lot of ebb and flow when you play a song together live when you have chemistry. The drummer slows down a little bit here and there even within a part of a song. Slow down and speed up a few times and that’s just the energy of the song. And the more the band plays together the more everybody is pulling and pushing until eventually there’s a sweet spot. And that’s what we ended up with on the live demos, and just duplicated that by tempo-mapping the whole thing, which as I said, is really time consuming but well worth it because the record sounds like our band.
When listening to Hang it definitely has a different feel compared to earlier Lagwagon albums. Do you think it’s a more mature album?
Definitely, I couldn’t have written the lyrics I wrote for this record back then. I don’t think, musically, our stuff is as complex. There are faster things on the other records but faster isn’t quality, it’s just you’re young and you want to play really, really fast all the time. But there things on this record that are more difficult to play. The thing is though, our band are seasoned players. It’s a joke I make all the time, when I try my best to challenge them it’s not enough [laughs]. I can write the most difficult things for me to play and they’ll just say, “Oh, yeah, okay” and play it with no hassle. But we all think this is our best record. This is the record we’re most proud of and we love it. And that’s what’s important; you have to be self-indulgent when you make music. You have to be able to praise yourself, because that’s the best that you can do.
What would you say is the biggest difference between the Lagwagon of the early ‘90s and the Lagwagon of 2014?
Well, the early ‘90s Lagwagon had a different drummer. Derrick [Plourde] was our drummer. We had a different guitar player named Shawn Dewey and we had a different bass player; that’s a fairly large difference. Although, Shawn was only in the band until the mid-‘90s, but Jesse [Buglione, ex-bassist] only left a few years ago. I don’t think that if that band were right now trying to make this new record, I don’t think it’d sound anything like this record. And I think that’s a good thing. People evolve, people change, they grow up, and they change what they like and what they’re willing to play. They become braver and play exactly what they want to play. Everyone in my band has different tastes in music. Most of the guys in my band would rather play metal than punk, there’s no question about that. I think, as we get older, you sort of become braver for yourself. You indulge the things you want to indulge. That’s not to say on the earlier records anything was contrived or anything like that, I just don’t know if everyone in the band was as happy as I was as a songwriter, whereas the newest record is clearly the most collaborative thing that we’ve done. We started with some arrangements I’d worked on with my friend Brian Wahlstrom, a piano player. We had writing sessions for a really long period of time. We got together a number of times to work on songs and that was just for arrangements and stuff, but once I had these ideas in place then it came to the band. We’ve been around for a while, and we can just do whatever the hell we want. There’s something great about that, especially if everybody listens to each other. In the old days I generally brought music to the table that was fully arranged, all the dynamics were fully decided, I wrote most of all the different lines of composition for people. I think people in the band didn’t mind all that much, but it isn’t the same as it is now. It’s a much more seasoned band.
When you’ve been performing for so many years, how have your inspirations and influences changed your career? With this album what inspired you to make it as it is?
I think that lyrically the record is driven by my observations of the world that my daughter is growing up in and the people who live in it. That’s a very vague definition of what the lyrics are about, but it’s sort of a series of rants of mine. I joke that it’s my “bitter old man record” but it’s not bitter, it’s more concerned. Musically, it’s the exact core of what my band should be doing. There are the five guys that are in the band and we want to play how we want to play it, and we kind of nailed it. We love playing the record because it feels right. It wasn’t that way with every song as we approached it, but it’s hard to be objective and speak in terms of comparisons and things like that, I’m not all that good at doing that with our music.
You’ve also had a front row seat when it comes to the modern American punk scene. How do you think it’s changed over the years? Is that ‘90s aesthetic still there in some capacity?
I think there are a lot of bands that still sound like that, and every once in a while I’ll play with a band that’s clearly themed to that kind of music with a nod to that very ‘90s sound. We still have a little bit of that in our sound for sure, and I don’t think we can get rid of it. But the way people look at those things is kind of a mystery to me. We never called our band “a punk band” but we’ve been called a ‘90s punk band, then it was ‘90s skate punk or California skate punk, but all of those definitions comes from other people – they’re not anything to do with us. You just play in a band, you write music, you tour, and if you’re really like we were, you get involved in a community and are received that way and do well. We’ve been as fortunate as any band could be, and I feel incredibly lucky. But musically I look at that band or some of the Epitaph bands from the early ‘90s, and I think that almost all of them have learned to tune their instruments and are better musicians. Part of that early sound was the production of those records. They were thinner, they were made really crunchy but the sounds weren’t as big, but that had to do with budget. I don’t really like to speculate much, but I could look at any band within that genre and say they’ve improved. It’s not always the songwriting, but as musicians, most of the bands are still together and much better players now.
I definitely feel that punk bands have matured over time, especially the long-stay bands like yourself.
Actually, let me say one more thing about that. With a genre of music like that that’s depicted by others, I think there’s some purity to it because it’s the “sound of the time.” But individually those bands, as they get older, some of them will play the exact thing over and over for years, and to me I don’t know how that makes sense to anyone. If you’re doing that then there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to make a pretty similar record that’s not quite as inspired as the last one. Everyone in a band that stays together for a long time, they discover what they can do differently; they discover new things they can do, bigger and brighter things. I don’t think I’ve met anyone in my life who listens to one band their whole life, y’know? People evolve and their tastes change – as you’re learning new tricks you’re also changing, your taste is changing so the music changes a little bit. I don’t think anyone is immune to the climate change as well. New bands come along and they change the last gig, and that will trickle down. Some band, like an indie rock band or something becomes a 10-million selling band because they do something groovy and interesting, and a lot of people will be all, “I hate this, I hate this” but the landscape changes from this, so music evolves. You’ve got to be a little bit more suspicious of the bands that don’t change musically at all. That seems, to me, that they don’t come from a real place of foundation or integrity. But I can tell you this, the music that we’ve been involved in, speaking specifically about our band, there’ve been years where we weren’t as widely received and it’s been very conflicting for us touring. We’ve had records that have sold worse than others. It comes and goes. But the good news is that we just don’t think about that. We keep doing it because we love doing it, and I think that the bands that do that end up having more longevity. Those bands have got nothing to be concerned about.
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