At the beginning of May, the band released its eigth album, Three Chords and a Half Truth, a Clash-inspired collection of songs that stray to other sonic areas, but mostly stick close to the familiar Face-to-Face path. Lead singer and guitarist Trever Keith chatted with Punknews interviewer Gen Handley about what may be Face to Face’s most political record so far, the professional implications of playing in a band at 44, and why punk rock is the new soundtrack of Americana.
So where did the title come from? A play on words around the traditional punk song?
It’s actually kind of a spin on the old phrase coined by Harlan Howard about country music in the 50s – he said, “Country music’s just three chords and the truth” and it’s very simple music. So it’s a little bit of a sarcastic title saying that country’s three chords and the truth and rock and roll’s three chords and a half truth. There’s just so much pageantry and bullshit with rock and roll, especially with some punk rock out there.
This is kind of the post-reunion album – the last time we spoke you had just got back together and released Laugh Now, Laugh Later. Looking back at that album, were there any jitters? Are you guys feeling more comfortable now?
No, I wouldn’t say that – nothing’s really changed from then to now and there weren’t really any jitters on Laugh Now, Laugh Later. We just took really different approaches to each of these records.
I mean, Laugh Now, Laugh Later was made a little more slip-shot, a little more punk rock; we just went in, wrote a bunch of songs, rehearsed them a bit, went to the studio, didn’t think too much about it. We recorded them and kept the process very high and tight, putting together a very immediate-sounding record because of it.
For this one, we spent a lot more time on pre-production. We actually recorded all of the songs once on our Pro Tools rig and honed them in and worked on them, chipping them down to shape. And we weren’t afraid to have stuff that had maybe heavier arrangements and some different instrumentation – all kinds of fun stuff. On this record, we really took more of a production role in.
I notice that on this record, there’s a bit of a rockabilly-retro vibe on some of the songs. Where did that come from?
That’s a little bit of my influence creeping in there. That’s some stuff that I like and I’ve been listening to more in recent years. I don’t know, as writers, I think we tend to write about what’s on the brain or what’s influencing us at the time so every record is a bit of snapshot of what’s going on in our lives, creatively, at the moment.
How about lyrically? How were you inspired on that side?
Well, I did something a bit different on this record. I tried a process I don’t typically use where I come up with a lot of song titles I really liked and I worked off this pool of titles – I tried to do it on Laugh Now but I stuck to it better this time. [Laughs] So I had about, I don’t know, 20 song titles and just started putting the titles with music when it felt right to me, and then I developed themes from the titles.
This record is a little bit of an observation. It’s maybe the closest thing to a politically motivated record that I’ve really ever done. It’s not overtly political like a Rage Against the Machine or a Propagandhi record or something like that – because we’re not really a political band – but I think that it does make a commentary, socially, on some things current. They’re not necessarily based on my own viewpoints; some of them are just observations of other people’s political viewpoints and what the ramifications of those philosophies could be if they’re seen to their logical end. I don’t know, maybe they’re cautionary tales or whatever.
[Pauses] I’m getting way too deep, huh? I don’t mean to get so deep – sometimes I just ramble. What I mean to say was, “It’s just punk rock dude, whatever!” [Laughs] Sorry.
What were the political issues, those observations that got you going?
For example, “Paper Tigers with Teeth” is about ignoring the threat of organized, for lack of a better term and I hate to say terrorist, but it’s about not taking lightly the threat of organized groups. “Terrorist” is such an overused term; I’d more use “guerillas” or “militias” that operate independent of government. As an American, we have more of that as a threat now than we’ve ever had since 9-11. I never worried about that stuff growing up as kid, but now it seems like it’s something that even though we haven’t…well, actually we have – the Boston Marathon attacks are a more recent insurgence of that. So paper tigers is a metaphor, and I believe it’s Chinese, for something that looks scary, but they don’t really have any bite to them; an idle threat. My version is about something that looks scary and it actually really is scary so you should pay attention to that.
I do tend to write a little bit in the abstract or a little vague, and that’s what that song’s about.
How about the opening track, “123 Drop”?
That one is really about the economic climate in the States, writing from the viewpoint of somebody who has gone through rough economic times with bankruptcy and everything. So you’re at the bottom and you’re not content to wait for the other shoe to drop. It’s about reaching a point where you’re like, “Well fuck, everything’s been stripped from me and I’m broke, but I’m not going to lay here and cry about it. I’m going to get myself back and figure out how I can make this work for me.’” So it’s about the realization after hitting the bottom and finding the inner strength to get back on your feet.
Would you say this Face to Face’s most political record so far?
Yeah, I never really write politically, but I’ve always written maybe socio-politically, I suppose, or socio-economically where there are social commentaries. This one has more of a political mix, I guess, with the social aspects, but it’s not preachy. I don’t feel that any of the songs are telling people what they should do or how they should do it – it’s more observational, more looking at the mess we’ve got ourselves into. I don’t know if there are any real solutions for these problems – God knows I don’t have them – but I’m trying to at least get my own thoughts and viewpoints about why there are certain things, that I believe, wouldn’t work and we shouldn’t waste our time on them.
Is it a coincidence that the old-school, comic book-look of the album cover kind of matches the rockabilly sounds on the album?
No, it’s not a coincidence at all. But I think it’s better to describe the record as early British punk-influenced music.
It’s rockabilly like The Clash’s London Calling is rockabilly – there’s a few tracks on there that have that vibe, but it’s not a rockabilly record, obviously.
We were trying to do our version of London Calling without ripping it off. [Laughs] So it was definitely an inspiration or a blueprint because I think it’s the best punk rock record ever made – even though half of it’s reggae, but it still counts.
I’m sorry, I’ve diverted – what was your original question again?
I was just commenting on the album cover…
Oh right. I wanted to do something that looked like a B-movie poster. The guy that actually did the artwork is in the band Blacklist Royals who are on tour with us. Nat Rufus and his brother Rob Rufus have this company called Night Owl Merch and they do a lot of really great merchandise design – t-shirts, album covers, whatnot. So I called him about the record and I gave him some examples that I liked. We sort of worked off of this 60s film, exploitation poster vibe and we just honed it in until we found the cool, priest guy with the lightning-bolt hands. It’s totally over the top and kind of campy – it almost reminds of a Rocket to the Crypt cover – but I felt like it fit this record.
Why did you bring the Blacklist Royals and Teenage Bottlerocket with you for this tour?
I got Teenage first because I was looking for a really good main-support band and I’ve heard a lot of great things about them – and I know they’ve been touring their asses off for the last couple of years. So word about them has kind have been around. I was more active in choosing the bands this time because I wanted to put a night of music together that I was felt was consistent from beginning to end. So something, if you were a fan of Face to Face, you’d be cool with seeing these bands. I called Teenage for it and I called Brandon (Carlisle, drums) actually earlier and said, “Whatever our booking agents do or don’t do let’s make sure that, between you and I, if you want to do this tour that we make it happen.” And that absolutely was the case so we pulled it off.
And, like I said, the guys in Blacklist are friends of mine and I’ve liked their music now for a few years, I put out a flexi disc of them on my Folsom Records label and I did a little bit of production work on their new album and whatnot. So that was an easy decision – they were available and wanted to do it and we all are friends. I do think it would be good night of music.
It sounds like the tour kind of organically came together…
Yeah, it did. It wasn’t one of those things where a manager or a booking agent was like, “I think these bands will bring you 30 percent extra fans to you show.” I didn’t really give a fuck about that – I just want to have a night of bands that worked well together.
I did it not really knowing if we’d all get along and that’s been the best surprise. Everybody’s so fucking cool and we are just having a blast out here, we’re hanging out, having drinks. Nobody seems to get in their van and bail early – there’s always this cool hang time after every show where all the guys from all the bands are just chilling out together. It’s fun. It doesn’t feel too much like business out here and sometimes tours can get very much that way.
You mentioned you had helped produce the new Blacklist album. How much production work are you doing now?
Not really so much anymore, every now and then. Like I said, I work with Blacklist Royals a little bit, but it’s not something I’m actively going out looking to do. I mean, if I find a band I really like and they need my help, I’d be down to do it, but in terms of it as a career, it’s not work I enjoy every much. [Laughs] Unless I’m really invested creatively in the project.
So what do you enjoy doing?
I’m doing what I love doing – I love playing in Face to Face. It’s amazing to have a 20+-year career and still be active and make records and go and tour. I feel like it’s a gift and I feel very lucky to have such a supportive group of fans that want to hear new records from us and want to see us come play live; it’s something that should never be taken for granted.
And touring’s still a lot of fun?
Absolutely. You know, I’d be lying if I said that sometimes it doesn’t turn into a bit of a grind, but I mean, shit dude, we get to play music every day. What’s better than that?
When you started the band more than 20 years ago, were the reasons you started the band then, still relevant today?
Yeah, I would say the core of that is that it’s not a conscious reason. I’d put it in the abstract and say it’s more of a compulsion or a drive – it’s something I wanted to do ever since I was 13 or 14 years old. Once I became aware that you could have a band, make records and go on tour, I never thought of doing anything else but that.
So the reasons why I started the band? I never had these altruistic reasons like, “I’m going to go make a difference and change things.” It was more of a calling… it always felt like a calling for me and it felt like something I should be doing, something I was supposed to be doing.
I guess reasons can change through time. I guess you come to a point where it’s all you know. It would probably be pretty awful if I tried to go into the workforce. I have no resume whatsoever - I’m a 44-year-old man with no resume so I’ve painted myself into a corner (Laughs). But I’ve got to do it and that’s what it is now.
When you got back together for Laugh Now, Laugh Later, I was excited but wasn’t sure if the reunion was permanent or temporary – but you’ve stayed fairly prolific ever since. Where does the energy come from?
I have no idea man [Laughs] It’s either there or it’s not. It seems prolific, but I’ll be honest and say that I was dragged kicking and screaming through this process only because I had a little bit of a creative drive still. Luckily, my partner in crime as a songwriter, Scott (Shiflett, bass) had a huge burst of creativity and wrote like, 20 songs. We didn’t think too much about if it would be the first song or if it would be on the record, Scott just said, “I’m just going to write a bunch of shit because I’m feeling creative and I have to get it out of my head.” So he sat down and demoed like, Jesus, 22 songs or something. And I was at home with just a trickle of creativity and was like, “Well, here’s one. And here’s another.” [Laughs] I’m in Nashville and he’s in L.A. so the very early process of writing was us hashing out our ideas individually and then we exchanged those ideas over the internet and then we sat down together, really writing songs.
He had so many that we knew that it was more than we needed so I kind of picked through and chose which songs I could add lyrics or guitar parts to or whatever. I’m the kind of songwriter that focuses on the chorus and work backwards and do a verse, a pre-chorus to structure a song. I hate to admit it, but I get a little bit lazy so I’ll be like, “Ok, I’ve got verse one, pre-chorus one and chorus one.” then I’ll repeat it three times and be like, “Cool, I’ve got a song.” [Laughs] So I need Scott – I need a writing partner to come in and tell me, “No, you need a bridge and a cool intro” or whatever. Sometimes I’ll lose interest and not really finish a song so Scott really helped me on the four or five songs I wrote.
On your website I saw that you recently finished a video for a song off the new album. Which song was it for?
We made a video for the song “Right as Rain” and I think it’s going start making its way out this week sometime onto some various outlets that play music video and whatnot. I don’t know I never see music videos unless it’s on YouTube, but the label, Rise Records, is going to officially release it probably this week.
I read you saying that this was one of the easiest videos you’ve ever done…
Yeah, yeah – it was fun, it was smooth…we worked with a guy that I met and became friends with in Nashville, Joshua Black Wilkins, who will actually be joining us on this tour starting in Texas – he’s a super talented photographer and he’s directed about a half a dozen videos.
So it was super fun and easy to shoot the video with him and we shot the video in Nashville at this cool, old theatre, kind of in a state of disrepair with all of this plaster peeling off the wall and with all of this weird old paint – I think it’s going to look really cool. It’s a live, just like a performance video, but it’s got a lot of interesting looks to it. I think it came out really good.
A Punknews reader recently asked a question around why the stigma or danger of punk doesn’t really exist anymore. What do you think about that? Why do you think that is?
I don’t think punk rock or heavy metal – whatever used to be the fallback for dangerous, scary music – none of that shit was half as tough as gangster rap. So once rap music came out and that became the dangerous, scary music, all of us guys trying to do our punk rock or metal, we kind of became lame at that point – and that happened a long time ago.
Punk rock for me was never dangerous, it was always a way of expressing yourself that didn’t necessarily have to be put in this little box of like, “Oh, I’m a really talented guitar player and listen to me shred.” or “I can write the best song ever.” It was more just about free expression and that was the thing that attracted me to punk rock music. There’s definitely an angst and a fury to it all that’s great too. But the real danger in punk rock? I think that was always trumped up. Even during the 80s when there were these slam pits and you’d hear these stupid stories about guys sewing razor blades into their leather jackets so they could cut each other in the slam pit, but that was few and far between, back in the day. That was never a part of my experience.
But I will say this that at least what we’re doing now and what I’ve seen, I can only speak to what I consider punk rock – it isn’t anything what you’d hear on the Warped Tour or any of that bullshit. I think what we’re doing, and bands like us like, Bad Religion, Social Distortion, Rancid, Dropkick Murphys and that kind of era, that generation of punk rock are doing – and I left out a lot of other bands – it’s really become about this type of Americana, kind of folk expression of music; kind of what country has become. I think punk rock is in the same way. It doesn’t sound like folk music or acoustic guitar music, but I think it shares something in common with that honest sentiment of someone being able to make music who is necessarily a professional. It’s folk music in that regard, for the people that regular people can make.