Paint it Black's most recent release, Invisible, doesn't show any signs of subdual, with the songs and vocals being louder than before. But he's right, Yemin doesn't get to scream as much as he used to. With full-time gigs as a father and a psychologist, it's not easy to find the time for music, especially when it's with at least three bands.
Because all of Paint It Black's members have their restless hands in a number of projects, the stars need to align for the guys to come together to make a record, which, after four years since their last EP, has finally happened.
Yemin found some time in his crazy schedule to chat with Punknews interviewer Gen Handley about how adulthood has influenced his music, the similarities between hip hop and hardcore and the joys of recording their latest release.
I read that this EP has been in the works for a while now.
In my head, I've been working on it for three years. I don't want to make too much of it, but our drummer (Jared Shavelson) lives in Los Angeles - he's on tour for like eight months out of the year, and Andy's (Nelson) in a really serious band so it's a good chance when Jared's available, which is not very often, Andy might be doing something with Ceremony. And then Josh (Agran), our guitar player, is in a lot of other bands too - he's got a lot going on - and I'm in like four bands and have two kids and a full-time job.
So logistically, it's pretty tough to pull off a Paint It Black record then.
It's really tough. For this two-week period when Jared was out here in December, we had been trying to orchestrate it since last January.
But aside from the scheduling dilemmas, Paint It Black is doing pretty good?
Yeah, we're always working on the next thing, we're fired up - it's just that the time span is a lot longer. When we do get together, it's a fucking thrill; the collaborative energy is amazing. When we get together, it's the most efficient and dedicated group of people I've ever played with. It just takes a long time to get together [Laughs.] I do most of the writing on my own and then I send demos to everybody and they just kind of rearrange everything. Like, I demo everything, send it to everybody, [and] they'll have six or seven practices without me and then we all get together and almost always, what they've done with the songs is better.
Over these past few years, what shaped the writing for these songs?
Well lyrically, it's always been where my head is at. When I was younger, I didn't realize how much you're still growing when you're…not young anymore. [Laughs.] Like, you're still changing and growing and maturing in all of these ways and a lot of that has to do with family and the struggle to stay engaged with the world when you have a family - family can make you really insular because it takes so much out of you and you focus so much on your home. And to stay engaged with the rest of the world, especially if you consider yourself politically engaged, becomes much more of a challenge - I find that I have to work twice as hard. The best [way] to put it would be that it's recontextualizing. I know make a lot of these adjectives up, like when I wrote that thing when we put out the record, but writing for punk music has always come from this place of alienation and outrage for me and I know I said that two weeks ago. I think that being older and having a family, those feelings are still there, still a part of me and how I see the world, but they're recontextualized because of what my priorities are now.
Like, I engage sexism in a very different way now because I have a daughter. It's always been something that I've been freaked out about and pissed about and tried to write about, but it's totally different because I'm thinking about how it's going to affect her. It's important to be pissed about sexism and it's important to be a feminist - it's not like I'm saying I'm serious about it [just] because I've got a daughter - it's that the perspective is different because I'm thinking about her life, in a visceral way that's different from how I felt about it before. So the feelings that are sort of being grappled with and the ways I talk about how the world is broken, I experience all of that differently because I'm raising kids.
Are these feelings, the emotions amplified as a father?
They're amplified and they're recontextualized. There's also a struggle with cynicism as you get older. Having kids also makes you think about the future in a really positive way. It's always been about this balance of outrage, critique and hope. And hope is, again, something I'm experiencing in a new light because when you have kids, you see the future in a different way.
So where does the title Invisible fit into all of this?
Actually, the title Invisible came from somebody that commented on a set of lyrics I posted, which were really directly about sexism. I've always felt a little problematic, as a man, writing about sexism. Like in the 90s, DIY-political-hardcore bands wrote about feminism from a male perspective and I always felt it was a bit clumsy and heavy-handed a lot of the time. But I was feeling like, I'm not sure it's appropriate to try to write from a female perspective either because it felt condescending - the only time I think it was pulled off was that Fugazi song on the first record called "Suggestion."
So I had these lyrics with certain lines trying to take on a female perspective and I posted it on Facebook and wrote about what I was struggling with - how I was struggling with what voice to use. I wanted feedback, especially from women and I got a lot of it - it was amazing. Most women felt that trying to speak in a female voice would be inauthentic. It was in many ways recreating the worst aspects of men speaking to women, which is a problem. So I took that advice, kept the skeleton of the lyrics and changed it so it was in my voice and was talking about sexism but also about the problems of male power and the ways in which judgement and perspective can work to empower some people while dis-empowering others - with sexism being one of the many contexts where that manifests. One of the comments from one of the women who answered was "You should call it 'Invisible' because that's how I feel sometimes."
But also, we are always looking at ways to erase the boundaries between audience and band. So I liked the idea of the people who support Paint It Black helping me write the record and helping me title the record. Also, the other way we did this was having the Philly scene do backup vocals for the record. We played a show in this DIY venue in west Philly before New Year's - there were about 250 kids there - and we just recorded this song. You know how there's this standard part in a hardcore song where there's either a breakdown into a slow part or a breakaway into a fast part and somebody yells, "go?" You know, the classic hardcore "go" backup vocal? Well I wanted the Philly scene to yell "go" on this record so I took out my iPhone and counted to three and everybody yelled, "go" and I put it on the record. I love the idea of the kids who listen to us helping us write the record and help record the record. It's all about community and communication and finding new ways to realize that and new ways to actually make that happen.
So that was a long way of telling that story, but I feel that it's the most important story of the record.
The last two Paint It Black releases were EPs as well. Is Invisible the third in a trilogy?
Yeah, I would call it a trilogy for sure.
And aesthetically, the album covers are all pretty similar…
That was deliberate, definitely. I very much like the idea of continuity of design.
I just want to say one thing, even thought it's not in response to a question, is that the people who write about punk and who write about this band have a really strong tendency to talk about Paint It Black as my band and say "Yemin and company." I really want to make it clear in this interview that I don't think of the band that way - I don't think of it as my band. The things that Andy Nelson, Josh Agran and Jared Shavelson contribute to the band are just as important as what I bring to the band and in some ways, more important. There's no way I could do it with any other group of people and it is not about me - the creative impulse starts with me, but the other guys enable it in away that couldn't happen with anyone else.
Sorry, I digress - I just had to say that.
So what is about about EPs that you like so much?
There are two main reasons. Basically, the first is that we did three full-lengths and I don't really know any punk bands that did more than three fantastic full-lengths. I don't know if ours were fantastic, but I do know that I'm not arrogant enough to think we're going to be the band that pulls it off, continuing to make full-length records that are challenging and interesting when traditionally punk and hardcore bands haven't been able to do that.
Based on the stuff that I grew up on, the 7-inch EP is the perfect format for this kind of music. As much as people are accustomed to thinking of the Minor Threat discography as being all on one CD or as being two 12-inches, the Minor Threat album is just two 7-inches that went out of print and were repressed as a 12-inch. There are bands in the 80s where the 7-inch was just a complete piece of work and I didn't need anything else from them. Thinking of bands in the 80s that did six-song and eight-song 7-inches that were complete pieces of work and never left me feeling, "Aw, I can't believe they didn't do an LP." It's short, fast music in a format that's kind of perfect for that.
So in a lot of ways I'm a traditionalist and it appealed to me [Laughs.]
You mentioned on your site about having a renewed sense of purpose with the new EP. Can you explain what you meant by that?
I just think that any time we can get together and create something new, there's an energy that starts and continues with all of the conversations about mixing and mastering and design and who's putting it out and then people start to hear it and we get feedback - it creates this whole feedback loop of excitement. It's just as exciting now as when I did my first record with my first band; it's always like starting fresh, like starting over in a really positive way.
Why did you pick Will Yip to produce this one?
It was really important in terms of our process to start recording locally. The days of getting out of town to record hours away are over because of the realities of day-to-day life. So I was looking to do it locally and a lot of friends of mine had worked with Will and spoken really, really highly of his skill and his ear and his chill attitude and his civility (I'm pretty sure this is "flexibility," not "civility") with time - those were all things we really needed. Also, he's done a lot of hip hop stuff and anybody who's read anything about this band knows that I'm pretty obsessed with hip hop and very interested in the process of how it gets made and how different it is from what we do. So I was really interested in working with somebody who had a lot of experience making that kind of music - someone who really understands the importance of vocal cadence and the importance of bass, like low-end. All of those things, together, made him seem like a really good choice.
So I got in touch with him and he was like, "Oh yeah, I've always wanted to work with you guys and now I'm going to make it really easy." [Laughs.] And it was really easy - he's great. He's got a fantastic ear and everything's really chill, but somehow it happens at a really quick pace.
Well anybody who has recorded knows that you spend a good amount of time getting the right sounds, on the front end, before you even start playing. So we got drum sounds, bass sounds, guitar sounds and tracked all six songs in two days. And we're perfectionists. [Laughs.] So that felt really fast and I went in and did vocals one night after work and one Sunday afternoon - and I played some guitar overdubs as well. Then he mixed it without us and sent us links to the mixes and we'd listen to them, sending him comments and then he'd adjust and send us new mixes. It just went really smoothly.
By contrast, there was another punk band working in the studio who we were working around. They had a full month booked to do an album and I thought it was a really cool contrast that we banged this whole thing out in two days plus a couple of extra nights.
Do you think there are similarities between hardcore and hip hop?
Yeah, there's definitely a similar aggressive vibe. I also think that in pop music and melodic punk, the hook is a vocal melody a lot of the time. In aggressive hardcore and hip hop, the hook comes from the way the syllables are mapped out across the music; what I'd call the vocal cadence. So those are both important elements that bind the two together. Also, as much as hip hop is probably the dominant cultural force in pop music now, it very much came out of the underground in a lot of the same ways that punk did. In some ways, I think it also was formed in the crucible of the Reagan era in the same way that American hardcore was. Also, in the late and mid-80s, most people who listened to hardcore were also into rap music - maybe not most, but there was a lot of crossover.
What's happening with your other projects like Lifetime and Armalite right now?
Armalite's probably on pause, maybe very long-term pause because one of us lives in California and I don't think we have the same kind of will or continuity that Paint It Black has. I won't say that you won't ever hear from us again but there's no plan right now to do anything.
With Lifetime, we play from time to time, but haven't played since August - it was six days after my son was born and that was really fun. I don't know. We've talked about writing new music, I've written some, but we'll see where it goes. And then I'm working on a new band with Andy from Paint It Black, my friend Chris (Wilson) who plays drums with Ted Leo and Pharmacists and our friend George (Hirsch) who sings for Blacklisted. That's a lot of fun and I'm playing guitar for that - we should start playing this spring and I'm really excited about where that's heading.
What's this band called?
We don't have a name. That's the hardest part. Hopefully we'll be ready to play by May. We've been working on it, on and off, for over a year. But things have their own pace in our lives and sometimes it can take a long time and then all of a sudden "boom" and we're ready to roll. Now that the Paint It Black album's done, there's a renewed sense of focus on that - I'm actually headed to meet them now.
It's hardcore as well?
Yeah, a different kind of hardcore, but definitely hardcore and I guess punk. I don't really appreciate the distinction between hardcore and punk much. To me it's hardcore punk, two words - to me, there's no one without the other, really. I'd say this band is going to be much more Washington, D.C.-influenced than anything else I've done before?
What do you love most about hardcore punk?
It's really hard to pick. [Laughs.] I really love the whole DIY ethic. It's important more now than ever with the amount of corporate consolidation and the sheer number of things having to do with cultural production. But I think DIY is also thriving more than ever because there is so much big business. Also, I like the energy, the community, and the potential for exchange of ideas.
Does the music side of your life complement your life has a psychologist at all?
Yeah, I think they inform each other constantly. They both have to do with connecting with people on a very intimate level.
Photo credit: Rachel Wassum/WassPhotography