For the last five years, the Riot Before has been nothing less than a touring machine, consistently criss-crossing the United States as well as hitting parts of Canada and Europe. One thing vocalist, guitarist and principle songwriter Brett Adams has noticed lately is that the crowds know the words to their songs better than ever. This steady success wasn't preconceived, but the relocation of Adams from California to the Old Dominion to start a band was clearly the catalyst. Later this month the punk-rock foursome, including guitarist Jon Greeley, bassist Cory Manning and drummer Freddy Clark, leaves again in support of its third full-length, the beautifully packaged LP "Rebellion."
Style Weekly: Tell us about that one song...
Brett Adams: "The Middle Distance" is the first song on the record. The record is called Rebellion and that is one word from a quote that I found in Dostoyevsky's book The Brothers Karamazov. The quote is "one can hardly live in rebellion and I want to live." When I read that a year ago, I said "That is going to be the record." I had no idea what I was going to write about, but I read that quote and I knew I was going to write a whole record about that. I'm 27 years old and I've rebelled twice in my life, two major rebellions, and it struck me that at 27 you can't keep rebelling. You have to stop rebelling and start working towards something. I think rebelling is a very important part of somebody's life. It's detaching yourself from a thought or belief. But, you can't just live in detachment and that's where I found myself last year. I had successfully detached myself but I hadn't established anything new.
"The Middle Distance" plays to those issues of not running away from things anymore, but not knowing what to attach yourself to. It's like a limbo. There's a line in the song that says "there's a space in the seam between hate sewn to love and I know what it means to live in the undone." I felt like I didn't hate anything and I didn't love anything and I was just somewhere in this mushy numbness of belief. So that's exactly what it's about.
So you wrote the entire record based on the Dostoyevsky quote?
More or less. You can't tie every line back to it, but there's an umbrella of understanding that there are songs about not living in rebellion anymore. But, the whole record isn't just about that, because that would be almost like rebellion. In a certain way, it's not establishing anything else. The rest of it is based on the latter end of that quote saying that "I want to live." So, I spend a lot of time asking, "Well, how do you do that?" That's a much harder part. Establishing that one can hardly live in rebellion is easy, but saying I want to live is a very open-ended statement. I don't think it's cheating to say the rest of the record is based on that.
"The Middle Distance" contains an audible sense of urgency. Is this why you have it kick off the record?
We've wanted urgency to be the backbone of what you get from the band. If anything is going to sound sincere, we have to do it right now. When you don't know what you're striving for, there's this sense of "I've got to get this figured out very soon." There's definitely an urgency in that. It wasn't intended to be the first song. We decided in the studio, after we recorded "The Middle Distance," that it needs to start the record. It was serendipitous that, thematically, it started the record perfectly.
A lot of your older songs have that same sense of urgency, but directed at social problems like illegal immigration. Is this record more focused on you?
"5 to 9" [off of "Fists Buried in Pockets"] was about my response to immigration. I wasn't trying to solve the problem, the political science problem. I was trying to solve the personal problem. There's an issue about immigration, how do I respond to it? Well, the people that come over here are, for the most part incredibly humble, hard-working people who are just trying to feed their families and that's nothing but honorable. So, I'm going to treat them honorably and as equal humans regardless of policy or law. Let's not let that get in the way. So that's me responding.
I think in this record, it's still me responding, but less to issues like immigration and more to these cloudy concepts that I'm dealing with internally. The issue is more theoretical. When I started the band, I was leaving the church and entering politics, with the same angle, though. It was the same kind of self-righteous thinking of "I'm right and they're wrong." The church and liberal politics are very similar in that regard, so it's easy to leave one and go to the next. When I became pretty unfulfilled with liberal politics, I realized it was for the same reason I was unfulfilled with the church. It was mostly a critique of other people and very little about finding a real place for yourself in the world that you're accountable for. You are really unforgiving of people who don't share your doctrine entirely. Rather than looking at an idea and asking "Hey, is this a good idea?" It's more asking, "Are they Christian?" If so, then I'll judge them loosely. Or, [on the other hand] are they from MoveOn.org? Then, I won't be so harsh (on them). You just point out the flaws [of people you don't agree with] so you don't have to accept that they might have a good idea. The last line of "The Middle Distance" is "to risk defeat and find meaning without just running away." I think that's what I'm personally looking for. I think a lot of people around my age can relate.
Can you be a punk and stop rebelling?
As we've come to know it, no. Punk was started by adolescents who needed to rebel. It's not necessarily a lifestyle, but rebellion becomes a significant part of your life. I think everybody has a rebellion or two or seven, or just certain things they have to remove themselves from. That's totally legit. But it's when you make it into a lifestyle that you can't escape, that's when it's not legit. Punk as rebellion is not invalid, but when adolescent punks grow up, I think we're still establishing what they are going to do. Punk rock will always keep the adolescents, who need to rebel, rebelling, but how can we talk about punk without necessarily talking about adolescents? I think that is not established. A lot of bands are trying to figure it out. Most of the time they don't play punk rock anymore. They play indie rock or folk, something that's a little more accepting of maturity.
At the same time, the things [we talk about on "Rebellion"] are not exclusively adult. I think that if you're fourteen, you can understand and relate to it. The music is still universal and there are lines you can make your own. It's cool, I read a review of the record and the guy who reviewed it got it so wrong, got the lyrics totally wrong. But, he liked it and he enjoyed it and he got meaning out of the songs. Who am I to say you can't get meaning and enjoyment out of the songs even if (the interpretation) is not what I intended? I'd have beef if he said I was a terrible songwriter. Let's say "Tinnitus," the second to last song, was a song about a relationship. That song's about, when you choose to do something, all of the things you have to leave behind. And every acceptance is a negation. It's easy to play that out in the form of a relationship. I want to do something, but I have to leave behind this girl. But that never happened. I didn't have that relationship. So, if I was criticized for talking about relationships too much, I'd say you got it wrong. But there are underlying themes.
Do you prefer to write literally or do you prefer to write in stories and metaphors?
I'm growing fonder of metaphor, because I think I'm running out of literal things. You run out of life to write about, so you start using other ideas and images. I'm getting more comfortable with that. I think one of the things that is characteristic of the urgency in this band is that we have no clue what we're doing. In a certain way, we're not confident songwriters. Every song we write, there's a lot of trepidation and a lot of insecurity. I have no idea if we'll be able to write another song for the next record. I think that's where the urgency stems from. Lyrically, I think it's in the same boat, where I'm just trying to get words on the page that I agree with. I'm so critical of myself that it's hard to do. I just had my first panic attack as a result of having to write this record. I was sitting down trying to write songs and freaking out to the point that I had to put down my guitar and walk five miles. I kept clenching and unclenching my fists, not knowing what to do, thinking I was going to be a total failure. That's the urgency.
How did you like opening for Flogging Molly in late April at The National?
It was so fun. I want to play to a thousand people a lot more. When you play a small show, like in a basement, everybody's confined and that confinement en masse brings its own energy. There's a universal energy where we're all trapped in here together, it's hot, and you can't move around and that's great. But we've played hundreds of basement shows and playing on a huge stage in a huge room has a whole new world of energy. You get to run around and the energy is less about confinement and more about just freaking out with all this room you have. I really enjoyed having a huge stage to run around on and it was fun knowing I wasn't going to hit anyone with my guitar when I spin around. I enjoy being able to really perform and play shows in front of people who are me, when I was younger and wasn't jaded yet. When a show said doors were at 8:00, I got there at 7:45. I stood in front and waited. To see the kids coming in the doors and stand there, planning to stand there for the next five hours excited to see every band that was coming up, was really refreshing. They weren't critical. They weren't going to go home and write on their blog or get on a message board. They were just excited to see music, to experience music.
As a band that plays house shows, have you had any problems with the noise ordinance?
Locally no, but only because of our lack of playing [in Richmond]. I think we've only ever gotten shut down once [in other cities]. Basements are relatively quiet. And, they are normally in pretty bad neighborhoods and people in bad neighborhoods don't call the cops. One time we were playing in Brooklyn in somebody's back yard and they didn't call the cops, they just shot us with paint-ball guns. They didn't shoot us, they shot Death is Not Glamorous, the band playing before us. They got shot with paintball guns. So, the response was to hang a huge tarp in the back yard so they couldn't hit us, and the show went on.
What is the band's most embarrassing moment?
I don't know if it ever aired, but we were supposed to play this cable-access show in New York. So, we toured up to New York to play it and I blew out my voice. I have this thing on tour where the first four days are vocal days. I ruin my voice, it gets worse and worse, and then, after day four, it gets better and then real strong. I hadn't learned that cycle yet. We got to New York and my voice was bad, then some of our friends were in town randomly that we hadn't seen in forever, so we went and hung out and talked and drank all night. When we went to go do this cable access show, I missed every note possible. It was horrible and it was a one-take thing. We weren't there to record until we got it right. They wanted it to have a live feeling. I ruined it, squealing like a thirteen year old. There were times I'd try to hit a note and no sound would come out, it would just be air.
Do you have a voice regimen now?
I took voice lessons and it saved my life. I used to lose my voice every show. It's basically like if you go jogging and you haven't been jogging in awhile, you're a little sore afterward. My voice is sore the first four days, but the more I sing, the better I feel. If I were to establish a regiment, it would be a week and a half before tour. I would sit in my car or in the practice space and sing loudly for thirty minutes, every day. Lose my voice doing that. It's painful, so you almost have to be forced into a show setting to do it.
What are your favorite bands right now?
We're playing our record release show with The Great Explainer. They're from Jersey and they're incredible. We saw them play two years ago and it was one of those moments when the band was so good, it broke through the "jaded" me. I stayed and watched the whole set. We've been in contact since then and we got ahold of them and they're going to drive down from Jersey and hang out. I bartend, so the Japandroids record ["Post-Nothing"] is the best bartending music ever. I saw Titus Andronicus awhile ago and I'm excited about them.
Where are you heading on tour next?
It's a U.S. tour for four weeks. It starts with a band called Blacklist Royals who are on Paper and Plastick with us. We're doing the South with them and then picking up with Nothington, a band from San Francisco and doing the West with them and Heartsounds, who are also from San Francisco. They just signed with Epitaph. We've played with both of those bands before and they're awesome. I can't wait.
The Riot Before will host a record release show on Thursday, June 10th, at Strange Matter. Joining them will be Worn in Red and The Great Explainer. Doors are at 9pm and the cover is $5.