Featuring ex-members of the seminal bands Ergs, For Science and (for a while) Hunchback, Night Birds exploded on the scene about three years ago with the killer full length The Other Side of Darkness. Abounding with songs that don't sound so much like their early eighties West Coast influences, but like something fresh, new, and above all, fun. Live they zip through a set so fast and tight and energetic that you end up so exhausted you would have sworn it had been two hours instead of thirty minutes. The band is joining the legendary Zero Boys for some upcoming shows in August, but before that, long-time Punknews interviewer, Brian Cogan, caught up with Brian, Joe and PJ of the band to talk about tour plans, the new EP and new full length LP and… their love of Jermaine Stewart.
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For those unfamiliar with the Night Birds storied history, what led to the band getting together? And for those who have lived under a rock for the last ten years, what bands have you all been in before?
BRIAN - The Ergs were in the midst of calling it quits and Joe was one of my favorite bass players so I talked to him about starting the band, initially with me on drums. We went through a few lineup changes and now here we are. Before Night Birds I had played in a handful of bands. The drums for Forward to Death, For Science, and Psyched to Die probably being the most notable.
I loved For Science, very underrated band.
JOE – Mostly just The Ergs. Iâve been in other bands for short stints, but Iâm mostly a one band at a time guy.
PJ - The bands I did before this was Wormeaters and Phibes. I've been dicking around with bands since I was 14, but never took anything too serious until Wormeaters.
RYAN- I've been jamming around with a bunch of people since I was like 13. When I was 15 I joined a now defunct NYC band called Zombie Vandals. They were all a bit older than me, and I joined later on into the bandâs career, but it was fucking awesome. I get nostalgic for those days sometimes. I also had a brief stint as a scab drummer for an early 90s NYC band called The Radicts. They were a standout band on the classic Squat or Rot comps, and their stuff from back in the day was fantastic. The new lineup wasn't the same though. Definitely fun times, thatâs about it I think.
Was there any overt talk or a conscious decision to try for a "classic West Coast hardcore sound?"
BRIAN - We wanted to do a punk band with melody and hooks. At our very first practice when I was playing drums we did a Circle Jerks and an Adolescents cover. We love the West Coast sound, but we have always drawn from a lot of other stuff as well. I'd say bands like Naked Raygun and The Damned have been more influential overall to us than any West Coast band, but a catchy punk song is a catchy punk song.
How does (for most of the band) coming from New Jersey impact your attitude? Do you feel like you have something to prove? Are you tired of having people even ask about Jersey at this point?
PJ - I really can't tell, personally. I've lived in NJ my whole life, but I never felt like I was a part of any scene. I was too anti-social as a teenager to go to a lot of shows. I was a lousy punk. A lot of the people at hardcore shows that I would see had a lot to prove, and that's not why I got into punk. I don't think that sentiment is exclusive to New Jersey.
RYAN- I'm from a really small Irish neighborhood in Queens, super far from Manhattan where the punk scene was happening. Being a punk there was not alright, and I caught tons of shit for it every day from people. It kind of fucked me up a little bit. I definitely felt I had something to prove growing up. Not so much now.
JOE – Iâve always lived in New Jersey and I probably always will. New Jersey will always be in the shadow of NYC, but câmon itâs NYC, itâs the biggest city in the world. New Jersey gets tons of exposure in the all forms of culture and media so at this point I donât think thereâs anything to prove there. Probably the biggest bone of contention between NJ and NYC is who has better/acceptable pizza.
Well, isnât there a pretty vital Jersey punk scene?
PJ - Depends who you ask.
BRIAN - It always comes in waves, like lots of places. There have been times in my life when I thought punk shows and punk bands in New Jersey were as good, if not better than any other state in the country, and then there are times where it's embarrassing. I came up getting to see bands like Full Speed Ahead, Tear It Up, Dead Nation, Hunchback, The Ergs, and Screaming Females. A lot of diversity, and a lot of really cool stuff. But sometimes it seems lazy, like no one is putting any effort forth to take a band seriously, or book shows, even if itâs a mild inconvenience, and that's when things can get really lame.
So, you guys are YouTube sensations. Can you tell us the story of the TLC episode and how you guys ended up on the show?
BRIAN - It was just me and Night Birdsâ first drummer, the Coastman, who were on the show. We were playing in a band called SNAKEBITE with two other guys. Joe from Don Giovanni Records was interning at TLC. They decided to do an episode where they found a band and made them over to look more "punk." Joe obviously knew it was a hilarious concept, and knew we, being the goofballs we are, would handle the task with ease. We acted like we had never met Joe, and we pretended to be genuine about wanting to be made up to look like Good Charlotte. We went on a four day shoot and let them turn us into total assholes, and it was a blast. We just rolled with the punches.
Okay, A major label comes in today and asks you guys to sign, you say?
JOE – Thereâs a classic AV Club interview with Ian MacKaye where he mentions something about the music industry being that place where art and commerce meet and that is essentially where all the problems stem from. Big record labels are businesses – they donât have the same goals and priorities as a band does. Also, I donât think most punk bands have the same priorities as non-punk bands. Of course, I would love to be able to live off of my band, but the chances of A) a major label wanting a band like us on their roster (in this day and age) and B) same major label offering us a deal that reflects our interests in addition to their own is very, very slim indeed. Long story short, Iâm not signing any deal memos.
BRIAN - I think there really is a lot to be said about being a bigger band on a smaller label. Just this past weekend Alex from Grave Mistake helped book a show for us in his hometown and it was great! And the night before, he drove two hours to see us in Washington, DC. He puts out our records, but he's also our friend. We have an actual hand-to-hand relationship with him that is maybe the most important thing to me. I like to be able to bother Alex with texts, phone calls, and emails all the time and get instant results. He pretty much gives us complete freedom.
PJ - I would agree [to be on a major] without hesitation. Real jobs are stupid and I hate them.
RYAN- Yes, money is cool. I think the current climate of the music industry has changed so drastically over the past couple years, It's hard to pinpoint what exactly being on a "major" label can do for you anymore. Things aren't as black and white as they used to be. I'm sure some people who play in bands on big labels like, I guess Sub Pop, still have day jobs. What I'm trying to say is unless you are like, doing very very well; things probably aren't that much different, with not having to work being the goal. Work sucks. Grave Mistake Records fits us perfectly, and I can't really see us releasing our new LP with anyone else. I'd definitely be all for getting some of that Scion paper though. [Laughs]
So, any plans to do a tour so massive it actually hits Albuquerque?
PJ - I would like to see that left turn I'm always hearing about.
BRIAN - Maybe one day, but not right now. My wife and I are having a baby in November. so that will mean some sort of show hiatus. It's also tough because our jobs, we can only normally go out for two weeks or so at a time, so we end up not getting to play a lot of the middle of the country cities.
RYAN- I hope so, we all like Breaking Bad.
JOE – Las Cruces is best punk town in New Mexico. Get with the times!
You are all "vets" of the scene at this point. Do you think people can live the DIY aesthetic for life? Can the band survive for another five or ten years living under the major labelsâ radar? Or has the decline of the industry made that question moot?
JOE – For certain, I think people can live the DIY aesthetic well past their 20s. There are people in the NJ scene who are older than me who are stilling doing it – playing in bands, putting on shows, putting out records. I think Iâm getting up there in terms of people still doing this (pushing 33) and sometimes I question whether I still should be, but then when I look at these individuals who are older than me (who I wonât name since I donât want to blow up their spot), I realize I can stick around. I think you need a good mix of jaded adults and young idiots to make a scene entertaining AND functional.
How much do the lyrics reflect your lives? Iâm wondering, if say, "Last Gasp" means I should do some autoerotic asphyxiation myself?
JOE – Not all of this stuff is autobiographical, "reportage" as they say, but on the other hand, I donât think itâs a Randy Newman-type deal where everything we write is from some other made up characterâs perspective. Itâs a mix. With "Last Gasp," I think I was just trying to fill a void in the punk canon – I canât think of another song about the old stroke ân choke, can you? That wasnât rhetorical, Mr. Cogan, you wrote an encyclopedia, THE encyclopedia, on punk, so if one exists you should know. Actually, Iâm sure such a song already exists, but I didnât know of one, so thatâs how that happened.
I canât think of any, while there are many I thought were appropriateâ¦erâ¦never mind, next question! Marissa seems to be everywhere these days (full disclosure, Iâm a huge Screaming Females fan), did she have enough downtime when she had mono to do the cover of Maimed for the Masses?
BRIAN - I had the cover in mind, and knew Marissa had done all the fake blood for one of their videos, so I called her and asked her if she'd give me a hand and she was seemingly excited to help. I went to her house a couple times and we (well, she, with me watching over her shoulder) busted it out! She wouldn't even let me pay her; I think I bought her a sushi roll for dinner! She is a total sweetheart. Really glad to see she is doing better and back on the road where she belongs. We played with them in Texas last weekend and they were great.
Serious question: Since MRR started, the obsession with "selling out" has dominated the punk community. To you guys, what is selling out? Some people would argue that some of the "fests" or tours have corporate sponsorship so thatâs a sellout, that certain websites that are owned by large corporations are not really punk, etc. What kinds of compromises are you willing to make?
PJ - Any and all. As long as someone's playing music that they want to play, there is no way to sell out. I think the way corporations have taken a stranglehold on civilization is bad, don't get me wrong, but I think the backlash against independent bands trying to make a living off of their art is counterproductive.
BRIAN - I think as long as you are doing things on your own terms it's fine. We write our own songs, we have complete control over any and all artwork. If we accidentally figure out a way to make some money along the way, I say good for us.
RYAN- The only sponsors I've seen at Punk festivals here have just been beer companies, and stuff like that. I'm sure the people who put good festivals together need those sponsors, otherwise they wouldn't have them. Unless youâre on a six band packaged emo tour with obvious shit bag corporate sponsors, and Monster energy drinks spraying everywhere, I don't think it's all that bad.
JOE – For me, I only do stuff that I am comfortable putting my name on. If some company or entity that I had a problem with was sponsoring something we were involved with, I might not want to participate anymore, but I donât support the idea of not being a part of anything that is sponsored, period. Itâs usually a moot point because by the time a fest gets really heavy into sponsorship, the booking of the fest has taken a nosedive and we probably wouldnât want to play it anyway. Case in point, The Warped Tour. It was sponsored from Vans from the beginning, but the first five years or so of it were actually good – I saw Descendents, The Specials, and a bunch of other legitimate good bands when I was 16 or so. You could see each year, though, the number of vendor booths going up exponentially while at the same time, the number of interesting punk bands on it were dropping at about the same rate.
For those who have yet to see it, Joe, can you explain the "Ergs fake-out?"
JOE – Trade secrets, canât reveal those to the uninformed or theyâll kick me out of the union.
See, you guys are so smooth under pressure! When Narduwar comes up with a really obscure question like that, bands usually are pretty flustered. Speaking of that, can you really say the band has made it until youâve been interviewed by Narduwar?
BRIAN - I know he likes us! He emailed asking when we were coming back to Vancouver because he had missed us last time and was down to do an interview, but not sure when we will make it back.
When is Born to Die in Suburbia coming out? Any radical changes? Rumor has it you use a mellotron on some of the more prog-oriented songs?
BRIAN - These are the first two records that PJ will be on, that's a pretty significant change.
PJ - I'm not Mike Hunchback. Mike's guitar tone is so unique and really out there that I didn't bother trying to recreate it with precision. There are some obvious cues that I took from learning how to play the old Night Birds songs, but for the most part I put my own stink on it. It's not exactly a radical change, but a change nonetheless.
BRIAN - Though I'm honestly not sure we would have even done another record if it wasn't for PJ joining the band. We were really hitting a wall, then PJ's stylistic differences kind of opened up some new doors for writing, and the records came together so easily. I think we sound like we always have, but maybe a little more focused and we trimmed some of the fat.
True confession, listening to you guys on iTunes (I canât play vinyl every day), Night Ranger came on right after you guys were done. What is the most embarrassing thing you guys have on iTunes, whatever program, etc.?
PJ - The soundtrack to Sister Act II: Back in the Habit.
JOE – "Singing for Beginners" voice lessons.
BRIAN - Rilo Kiley.
RYAN- Jermaine Stewart - We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off.