Hang dropped yesterday and is Lagwagon's first full-length in almost a decade, and everyone is really excited. It's for a good reason, considering that Lagwagon is such a renowned band in the punk scene. But, the question remains: Why was it such a long time between full-lengths? When you are a band as loved as Lagwagon, you would think that you'd feel the need to satiate your fans constant hunger for new music. But, Joey Cape thinks differently, and his reasoning may be part of why Lagwagon has released solid albums for the 20 years they've been around, and this is the first time he's been able to say that the band is 99 percent excited for Hang.
It seemed prudent to speak with Joey and get a full understanding of Hang, so contributing editor Xan Mandell called him up. What followed was a detailed conversation on not only just the writing and recording of Hang and the length of time between full-lengths, but his thoughts on Lagwagon in general, the various themes on Hang, creativity and embracing being a "bitter old man."
Before we get into the good stuff, I've always wondered what you thought when the show Parks and Recreation gave you guys a pseudo shout out?
I did not know that happened!
Do you know the show?
Yeah, I do, I've watched it for years.
Well there is a part where Andy Dwyer was talking about his past band names, and one of them was "Radwagon."
Oh my god! I think I remember that episode actually. But I didn't catch that. That's amazing! It feels good. I feel good.
I'm glad I could be the one who informs you of that. So, alright, the good stuff. When I was doing some of my research, it seemed like there was a period between around 2010-2012 where you were a little bummed about Lagwagon and just the concept of it.
Well it's been the case a number of times. I think if you're a band as long as Lagwagon has been together, there is definitely going to be periods where you're not 100 percent into it. The way that our band handles itself is that when those phases are happening and the band isn't really getting on, we just take a break. We don't break up, but we take breaks and things change. Sometimes it just happens and you're not really feeling it for a while.
Do you think the legacy of Lagwagon allots you the opportunity to do that? Do you feel you have to stay relevant?
I think it's better to not even think about those things to be honest. I think the most important thing is that you're proud of what you do and what you create. You have to be somewhat self-aware, and you have to take care of yourself and be careful of what you record, and you can't rush things. It's too easy to get into that system where you're forcing everything. Where you're trying to keep working and moving, and not thinking about the wellness of the band and the quality of the output. For whatever reason, we don't force things. I think it has worked really well for the band.
What was the catalyst to do solo stuff?
I always felt like it was a little bit of a right of passage… Not to sound cheesy. I always write on an acoustic guitar, so I'm very comfortable. I've demo'ed almost everything I've ever written. As well, I think it was a bit of a bravery thing. If you're a songwriter, it's almost as if you're not really a songwriter unless you can sit and play in front of people. I felt like it was something I was going to do sooner or later just to conquer the fear. I was terrified of doing that. Recording is completely different because you're alone and safe. But, I just wanted to do it at some point. I think over the years of recording songs that way, they got to a quality level that I felt like, "Ok, I could actually maybe record something and release it as well." It wasn't an ego thing, it was a matter of feeling like I should do that because it's a fear I had to conquer. And then you know, when I started getting more into it and recording songs that way, I realized there is a really nice creative aspect to it. When you play a song by yourself, you have total control over the emotion of the song, through tempo and the key you play it in. You can change that if you want. There are things that I discovered doing that which made me a much better songwriter, and I think maybe a better singer.
Did it give you the opportunity to feel looser with your songwriting?
You have complete freedom, because you only have yourself to disappoint. There isn't an obligation to make other people happy. When I write songs for Lagwagon, I'm very careful. I wait as long as I have to wait until I know what they would like, and what would make the band collectively happy. Thats why Hang took so long to write, because I didn't have a record in me that sounded like a good record. We've been down that road, we end up recording and working really hard on something, but then we don't release it.
With respects to the EP I Think My Brother Used To Listen to Lagwagon, you initially were really proud of it, but in retrospect you kind of came to conclusion that it wasn't your best work, so what happened there?
I think that maybe that was the only time in the career of the band where I gave into a tiny bit of that pressure of, "Oh boy, it's been a long time, and we need some new material." I had just recently completed the first solo record that I did. The guys were hitting me up during practice saying, "You're making all of these solo records now, but when are we going to get something?" and I said, "You know, we could probably listen to that and see if any of those songs work for Lagwagon." The irony of it was my solo record came out after the Lagwagon EP, and people were like, "Why would you cover the Lagwagon EP?" I had to explain that, and every time I did that I kind of feel like I was doing my band a disservice. Every other album I've written for Lagwagon is when I know what the collective identity of the band, which is part of the reason it takes so long, because I don't want to write a record for the band when I don't understand who we are. People don't evolve over one year's time the way should evolve in my opinion, and even if they are evolving, the differences are too subtle. It's too easy to make a record and say, "Here's a record, it's pretty much the same as our last record, but the songs aren't as good." It really bothers me when I get a record from a band every year/year and a half and I feel like they're doing the same thing, and it's cool and I like it, but I'd rather just listen to the other one, because it's a bit stronger. I like to wait until there is a synergy and chemistry that comes together, and it's a lightbulb over my head and it's like, "Oh yeah, this is it right here." Then I confirm it with everyone. The process is a lot longer, and it may not be good for your career, but we make record we're proud of. I look at the Older Brother EP, and I think it's ok. I go back and forth on it.
You once said that when you have a lot of people writing a record together, there is a 10-20 percent ratio to disappointment due to all of the new elements coming into it.
I think that might be pretty accurate, at least to my belief. Generally you can never be 100 percent happy with anything you record, and you shouldn't be. I think of you're 100% happy with any art you make, then you might not get any better at it. You have to always have the desire to improve. And not everything can be perfect if you have comprise also, because everyone in the band should have a certain amount of being pleased with what you're doing. In the past, I've almost always brought everything to the table almost 100 percent realized as far as songs go and the arrangement/key or how I imagine the time signature should be. There is collaborative stuff that happens in Lagwagon, but the songwriting aspect of it is always me alone, at least at the beginning of it. The band will put a stamp on it, but a lot of that creative process has already been taking care of. The new record was really different. I came to the guys much earlier on. We spent much more time as a band writing and working on this material, and I worked with other friends of mine on writing as well. I spent two years working on writing the record. Because of that, I realized I don't want to do a record any differently than that. I would say that the band is about 99 percent happy with this record, and thats the first time I've ever said that. It's a very different outcome, because of the way we did it. We spent a lot of time and went through a lot of material, and I feel like its one of those things where it's the first time we've ever talked about playing the whole record live. We're so happy with it, and thats what matters. When people see you play a song, they see the conviction in it. There is a balance of synergy you get from the audience. You can play an old song and the people are singing it, and it makes you feel great, and that's 50% of it. But, the other half of it is how you feel when you're playing it, and people see that. It has to matter to you.
This new record is a little more produced and sounds a little better than the older stuff. What was the decision behind that?
It depends on your definition of produced. Produced is a word that means many different things. In my mind, this record is a really raw record. I think it sounds amazing, because we did a full record at the Blasting Room. Those guys are second to none. They're just amazing. We tracked a lot of the instruments in another studio, but the drums were tracked there. Those guys are unparalleled the way that they can record drums for a band like ours. They mixed the record as well. It has a Blasting Room sound, which is fairly compressed. The way we recorded the record was the opposite of produced though. We demo'ed for four months live, until we got every song exactly as we wanted it to be. Rather than lose the live feel and lose the way Lagwagon's chemistry works, instead of deciding certain tempos and saying, "Ok, this song is basically 160 beats per minute and choruses are 164 bpm," I tempo mapped all of the live music. It took me four days, 12 hours a day. Every bar on that record is a different speed, and all of it honors the natural feel of the band. When we went into the studio, we were able to just replace everything. We just did the drums over, and then the bass, guitar and vocals, so that it sounds basically exactly the same when we play it. We used our own gear. That is the thing our band is pretty into. I produce records, and the way a record gets over produced, there are many things we don't do. It's because we don't really believe in them. When I listen to record, it sounds pretty much identical to the demos, but the tones are better. I will say sonically it sounds better than anything we've ever recorded. I love the way it sounds.
You like the idea of recording 10 songs in seven days, at least for the label you're doing now One Week Records, because you think the limitations of something like that create a more raw and true sound. Was that an idea you brought to Lagwagon for Hang?
Well, I like the idea of retaining as much of the original inspiration as you can. For example, I think that early on when somebody performs a song by themselves, when you get that great performance live, there is some synergy that's happening between their hands, and their mouths, and their brain, and there is something really amazing about that. It's very easily lost by the modern digital recording techniques that are at our finger types. I think things have gotten really out of hand. I think that records have gotten to a place where a combination of editing, tuning and the arms race of sound… The idea of compressing things until they're so loud that they have almost no dynamic. If you just look at the wav. files, records are more and more similar. I don't like that. I like the way a bands sounds live. I like to hear what a bands sounds like. I don't even have auto-tune in my studio anymore. I figure if I'm recording somebody and they can't sing it in tune, then they shouldn't be recording. I think people still want to hear conviction. They don't even have to realize it, or it be a conscious thing, I just think there are famous pieces of music that were more or less live and they just have something about them that no one can put their finger on, but I think I can put my finger partially on it. It's that it was a great moment. If you're focusing on one part of the song, and then another part of it, you loose sight of the big picture, and by definition just do the math. You're going to loose the flow of the beginning of the song to the end of a song. That was partially my reason for the way we did the Lagwagon record. When it starts, it might be this tempo, but by the end it's most likely going to be slower, because bands slow down, and that sounds natural. No one can tell, but its a better emotion to it.
You write all the songs acoustically first, so how does your basic structure, IE a G chord, to a C chord, to an A minor, how does that transfer to the riffs like on Hang? In terms of purity, how do you see that?
I know what the guys in my band like, and I know what I like, and I know where we come from. I have an understanding. If you listen to our band, we've always been pretty dark, we've had lots of riffs. We had lots of riffs. We definitely had a period of our band where there was more pop sensibility involved. I think melody became such the king that for a while there, things got a little bit more melodic than they are on the new record for sure. The truth is though, this is just a quintessential Lagwagon record. For who we are now, and the kind of music we listen to and where we come from… I'm not young… I was alive when Black Sabbath was making their first record. I listened to those records when I was a little kid. I was into the new wave of British heavy metal in the early 80's, so did everyone in my band. Punk was a big part of who we were too, but I never really considered Lagwagon to be a punk band. People give you those classifications, those aren't up to you. We listen to all kind of music. For years on tour all we listened to was Steely Dan, but we don't have anything that sounds like that, but I'm sure somewhere along the lines some sort of musical osmosis got into us. But, you make music for the current state of your band and what you want to do. If you do it right and take your time, everybody in your band is happy, and that is the most important thing. We're a band that likes to play riffs. The dudes in my band like it heavy and intense. I like both.
Lyrically, I think there is an expectation that the record is going to be an exploration of the passing of Tony Sly, and how it shaped you. While there are themes of that on the record, it's also a commentary on suburban life. Were you actively straying from the idea of death and the emotional turmoils/personal evolution that comes from that?
It's definitely a commentary and conceptual, in the sense that it's my observation of the world I live in and that I'm raising my daughter in. There is one Tony Sly tribute song on this record, which I had no plans to write. I knew what I was writing about on this record years ago. I started writing lyrics more than two years ago. The Tony song, I didn't really want to write a Tony song. In the past, I've written so many songs about friends that have passed away that I feel like there is a fine line between between catharsis and exploitation. Some of these things are far too important to put into words. The thing about the Tony song is that is sort of came to me when writing the lyrics and the record. It was undeniable. I just needed to do it, but I really hadn't planned to have anything on the record regarding Tony. That was years ago and it's a very personal thing. That song came out, and I brought it to the band. They all love Tony too, obviously, and were close to him, and it felt like we should've worked on it. I see the record that I'm writing as an older man and looking at the world not entirely pleased, and a little scared. I kind of jokingly call it my bitter old man record, because a friend of mine, I was telling him, "I can't write about this," and it said, "Why not?" And I told him, "Well I'll sound like a bitter old man." And he said, "But you are!" [Laughs] I don't see it as a bitter record, and I was just writing my rants that are normal rants that I have when I'm hanging out with close friends on Wednesday night at 1:30 am at my pub, drunk, talking about things. Every once and a while someone would tell me I should write about that, but I'd tell them I couldn't do that. But, I just decided I was going to, and I wrote many, many things for this record. The things that made the record were things that I felt were working.
What is the meaning of the reoccurring word "Hang"?
I kind of had this idea that if we did another record, it would be a one syllable record like many of the earlier records, and the word "hang"… I started writing lyrics for this record, and I started using different meanings for that word. It's a very powerful word, and it has many connotations. The obvious thing is that you're killing yourself. It's a device to commit suicide. Then there is the idea that there is sort of a metaphor of we are killing ourselves, and we're killing the environment. The themes that play out on this record are generally themes I shy away from, because they can seem pretentious or a little hippe-dippy, but they're how I feel. I do believe we can't survive without empathy. I believe empathy is dying, and that people are becoming less compassionate, and I do believe that people are becoming more narcissistic. There are so many themes on this record that are my view of disappointment. The word "hang" is a word I think is a very powerful word that I think works so many ways. I wrote it into the record as sort of a literary device. I had many of those devices at the beginning, but there were certain things that I figured out would probably take me five years to write, so I ditched them. That one stayed though. The bee's stayed.
Are the bee's a reflection on the fact that the population of bees in the world are dwindling down?
Well sure, but I think they represent so many things: A nature thing, a beautiful thing, an innocent victim, something that you need that you may not realize you need… There is just something about them also. Just the imagery of it, you know? I wanted some of those organic things to re-occur throughout the record so that it had more imagery. There is something about bee's that I find fascinating. The image on the album cover is something that pops into my head, that I think most people thought were a little crazy. But, I called my friend in Montana and said, "you know, I've got this weird idea for the album cover, I really want this intense image." I explained it to her, and it was so funny, she said, "I totally get it. I got this." Two days later she sent me the photo, and I was blown away. But, the most important thing to me was that it was an actual photo and wasn't photoshopped. I wanted it to be something unusual. I'm older now, and I'd like to make slightly deeper art, so why not?
When you brought all of this to band, what was their response?
I think at first some of them were like, "Woah dude… A noose? Really? This is way too dark." Then I told them about the cover, and they didn't really say anything. I imagine they thought I was off my rocker, but then they saw the cover and they loved it. They started to hear the songs coming together and they didn't even know most of the lyrics for the song. You don't really hear them when you're rehearsing. When they got the record, everyone in the band was really happy… Mostly about the music, I mean the music was very collaborative, and we made sure we did something that made all of us feel really good. When they got the final version of the record, I got a phone call from every one of them saying, "wow, this is so awesome, I'm so happy." It doesn't mean that it's so awesome, but we like it, but we like it.
You said earlier that you want to play this whole record live, and you're about embark on a huge tour. While the record is great, fans are going to want to see the hits, so how do you make both the fans and yourselves happy in that regard?
The general rule over the years has always been the same. When you make a record, you look at the record, before you go on tour, you have to assume that a lot of people don't even know the record, and the people at the shows want to see the "hits." We don't really have hits, but we know what songs people want to hear. So you know, you pick like three or four off the record you think will work, and then you get them really tight and then you go out and play them. Then you realize maybe two of them work and you try a few others. After years and years, you know in retrospect, "Well that record there are like these three or four songs we'll always play, because people like them." And they have the staying power. But, this is a totally different situation for us, because we've done what we've done. We're not changing the world, things aren't going to change much for us. We're pretty comfortable with what we've done and where it's taken us, and we're comfortable with the idea that it wont take us much further. It's all been more than enough. There is no album that was ever made where we were so happy with it that we said, "Lets play the whole record." I'm not even sure why we feel this way now. I know that I love the record, and they love the record, but there is something about this record that really represents us… More than anything else we would play that was old. I'm fantasizing that we'll actually play the record from beginning to end in sequence. We start rehearsing this saturday, so it remains to be seen, but the general consensus is that we'll play the whole thing. We can play a long set. The record is only 40 minutes long. We usually play an hour and a half. They're still going to get nearly a full set of other set of other songs. I don't ever guess anymore, or assume. It's so hard to predict the way things are going to go.
I guess you just answered this with your last statement, but what would happen if the record really took off and you gained a million new fans?
I don't really entertain that idea, but I also think we live in a world now where that is virtually impossible. The kind of records that take off now, I don't even it call that music. I think it's been at least 10 years since something ground swells, because it had an amazing originality and it connected with so many people. In the last 10 years, if not more, most of the things that go huge, they go huge because of marketing. I see the mainstream as the minority now. I think it's a teeny tiny fraction, and I think it may be a majority of the record selling, but it's a fraction of the things that are being created. It wasn't that long ago that Nirvana made Nevermind, or Weezer made The Blue Album. There have definitely been points in recent history where something was so awesome and so many people could identify that it became a ground swell, but I don't see that happening now. I see Katy Perry and Bruno Mars. I'm not saying they aren't talented, Bruno Mars is clearly talented, but I think it's a machine. But, that world isn't the kind of music that anyone listens to. I think that if Lagwagon's album has some really really massive effect and it did really really well, which I almost cringe to think about in a way. It's not that I don't want it. I'm indifferent. But, if something like that happens, that ground swell is limited by the world we live in now. I just hope it does well in comparison to other things we've done. I hope people who love the band actually embrace the band love Hang or like it, because we love it. It feels better when other people enjoy a record you make. It's not what is important, but it definitely makes it feel like more of a success.
A few years back, you said that you think you could only do Lagwagon for five more years… I imagine it was sort of a joke, but could you expand on it?
I think there is a physical aspect to it. I'm not that young, and singing all these songs is getting harder. I don't have as high a voice as I did in my 20's. The longevity of my voice has become shorter over the years, but in some ways, I've learned to sing better. I have better control over it. It's the same thing for the guys in the band. The guitar players and drummer… They're not as fast as they used to be. They have physical issues: back problems, knee problems, arthritis. You get old. Period. There have definitely been times where the band is lulling for so long that I feel slightly stagnant. That might have been very true, even five years ago, but that's changed radically. Something happened a few years ago, where we were touring to support the box set with all the old songs, and the band seemed renewed. We started playing better than we've ever played live, and everyone started really enjoying it again. This record sort of sealed the deal. I have no desire to do anything else. But, you don't know what's going to happen. Bands are like marriages, and music is your life. Things change and you never know what's going to happen. I don't like to even assume things or make promises. It's those kind of things that come back and bite you, just like whatever it is I said 5 or so years ago. I think I was joking, but I think I said, "I'll never be on stage when I'm 50," but that's clearly not true.
You went out for 280 days or something along those lines, and considering you're a father and a husband, going on the road has to get taxing, doesn't it?
Yeah, but it's easier because I'm doing so many different things now. I think if Lagwagon had a 280 day tour schedule it would kill us. But, the acoustic shows are far easier, certainly on the body, and it's a different kind of playing and performing. You're really just standing there. I tour in some ways more than I used to, with the exception of the early days of Lagwagon, and that has a lot to do with the fact that I have a family that I have to take care of and this is what I love to do, and it's also my job, and lucky me. I have no complaints at all. But, I can't just sit home and not work. I have to be doing something. Just like any other job, just taking a month off doesn't work. I still have bills. When Lagwagon isn't touring, I do acoustic tours, because I love doing it and I can still make a little bit of money. That's not shameful at all.
So you're kind of a restless person I assume?
Yeah, and I'm kind of a workaholic. If my girls were sitting here right now, they'd say, "Oh my god, you can't even sit still." I can hear my daughter in my head saying, "Dad, what are you talking about? It doesn't matter if you need money or not, you won't stop." But, it's true you know? I'm not going to be around forever, and I'm still feeling creative. I don't get people that play in one band, and come home, and meet and greet their bong and sofa and sit around for two months, watching TV and smoking weed or whatever. It isn't me. Any free time I have I think, "Well, what can I do?"
But where does all the creativity come from? I think it's impossible to have unlimited creativity.
I definitely don't think I do. There are long periods of time where I'm just blank, but it doesn't mean that I don't keep playing or trying. It stems from the philosophy that a writer writes. I can't remember if that was Kerouac or Hemingway or something. In this book, The Writers Way, they have these exercises where right when you wake up in the morning, you should have a pen and paper, and you have to write for half an hour. There is a lucidity or clarity that you have right when you wake up. It's an interesting exercise. I'm always fooling around with music ideas and lyrics, and a lot of it is crap. But, I'm not always right. There are definitely songs that didn't make Lagwagon records that become our favorite down the road. There are songs on Hoss and on Double Pladinum that I had written before we made Duh. Do you ever foresee yourself ceasing working?
I don't see how I can. I don't have a savings or a 401k or anything like that. I love what I do though, and there isn't really a good reason to stop doing that, at least I haven't found one yet, and I don't see the train stopping anytime soon for me, and I still love it, so what's wrong with that?