There are about 10 places you can hang out in Passyunk, a neighborhood in South Philadelphia, if you’re a young adult punk. It’s a stretch of the city where if you spend enough time in it, you are bound to get to know the people who call it home. So when Punknews' Eric Rosso messaged Ramona - comprised of guitarist and vocalist Diego Merano, bassist and vocalist Abby Vickderman, and drummer Shannon Ledbetter - on Facebook with a suggestion of meeting up for an interview at his favorite local dive bar and they came back with a suggestion of their favorite local dive bar, it was a familiar South Philly conversation and a difference of a couple blocks. As Abby noted in the interview, “I go to here and about four other places.”
As mentioned above, if you live in the area, you are bound to have had a previous interaction with almost everyone from the neighbrohood eventually.. About a year ago, Rosso wrote a review for a Lawrence Arms’ show in Philadelphia for Punknews where Ramona opened up. In the review, he used the wrong adjective describing them, switching ‘endearing’ to ‘enduring’ describing them as “standard variety pop-punk.” It was something the band jokingly brought up as soon as he hit the record button. After the good natured ribbing, they discussed their new album, the differences between the Seattle and Philadelphia scenes, and what the band hopes to accomplish with the release.
You’ve been described as being from Seattle, but now being based in Philly. I know you’ve all recently moved to Philadelphia. I know I’ve had the conversation with friends before where we dream of packing up and doing just what you did. Can you talk about how that decision came to be in the context of the band and what type of personal dynamics had to be discussed? Abby: This is very therapy. I’m from the Philadelphia area and I moved to Seattle to be in a band with Diego. My whole reason for being there was temporary and I was already ready to leave whenever.
Diego: So many feelings about this. I think for me, I didn’t like Seattle when I moved there. I liked it enough when I developed a friend group at the time, but didn’t really fucking love it until we started playing music which changed everything. I think the long story of it was we weren’t being challenged in Seattle and we felt like we built up a great following because we had built up a great friend base. Every show felt so fulfilling and fun, but we didn’t really know if they loved us because they loved us or because they loved our band and if we were any good. I think that question gnawed at me and there was no way I was going to be comfortable in Seattle without knowing if we were a good band or not. The East Coast is more cut throat. Bands are competing more.
Abby: They are pushing themselves in a lot of ways and doing good work.
Diego: There’s a hustle to it.
Abby: Hustle is definitely a good word for it.
Diego: Every person I knew in Seattle could play me under the fucking table, but they would play one show occasionally. That’s pure and amazing, but it’s different from bands trying to make it and go on tour.
Shannon: I’ve known bands in Seattle that are incredibly talented, but haven’t gone on tour once.
One of the things that connected to me about Philadelphia when I moved here was the feeling it had a working class affect to it, despite also feeling like a big East Coast city and connected up and down the coast. I thought it was interesting you said hustle. Was the hustle attractive? Abby: Yes, definitely.
Diego: The hustle was part of why we did well in Seattle. We had East Coast hustle from the beginning.
Shannon: We’re all from here.
Diego: For us if you’re going to play music why not do everything we can. It’s how we all are. The other question is because we are in a place where the hustle is as much as the thing, can we keep up with every band that’s fucking hustling? The answer is I think yes, but I also miss being in Seattle. I miss being somewhere where it’s fun and chill. We got what we wanted, but the vibe is different.
Shannon: Yeah, the last time we played a show there. Everyone came out and it was like a who’s who of our friend groups.
Abby: It felt like home!
Diego: I’ll always consider us a Seattle band. Moving to Philadelphia as a band and playing here made me realize how much we all really need each other to be a functioning band. We all need to be communicating with each other and if our band isn’t interpersonally doing well, we are not capable of playing as a band. You can hide that a little more when you’re playing a show and everyone’s around.
Abby: It always feels good.
Diego: Here, when we are playing a show, we have friends, but we are all we have. We have to be able to do it together.
You talked about the hustle, but I assume there’s a hustle in a Brooklyn scene, a DC scene in an East Coast sense. Why Philadelphia in particular? Abby: The diversity in the scene and the affordability. Affordability cuts out DC, New York City, and Boston.
Shannon: Living here has made it possible to go on tour because of the affordability.
Diego: I grew up in Boston. My brother has his band up there. Love that, but for me, part of it was like if I’m coming back to the East Coast I wanted to stake my claim on my own things and be away from that a little bit. I was pushing for Chicago because I love Chicago and Red Scare was there.
Abby: It is very interesting that a big pull for us for Chicago was that Red Scare was there and we ended up connecting with them here.
Shannon: Everything kind of turned out the right way as it needed to happen when we moved.
Diego and Abby first met Shannon in Seattle through a Craigslist advertisement in search of a forever drummer. After a solidifying hang at a ramen place followed by a random decision to go for a massage, the band’s bond formed. “Just the fact that we all so easily agreed on that, really said something about us as friends,” Abby noted. Shannon followed quickly with, “We all don’t agree on a lot,” and a round of laughter.
The name Ramona comes from that experience as a nod to ramen, not The Ramones despite some common misconceptions and a shared genre. Throughout our conversation, you can see the deep friendship the band has formed. It’s clear to see in how Ramona describe their move from Seattle and the effect it’s had on the band. It’s led to a growing ambition and drive. That ambition and drive can be found on their new album which is where our conversation turned next. What did Ramona hope to accomplish at the outset of this recording in terms of the development of the band from Sad Brunch? Abby: I think the biggest thing was to capture what we actually sound like now. The Sad Brunch recording was a year, a year and a half into us being a band. The amount of touring and changes that we’ve gone through individually as a band is so huge. Capturing something that sounds like us today was the biggest goal.
Diego: Yeah, we had been a band for six months or under a year when we recorded Sad Brunch and to be honest, I’ve been a little embarrassed within the last year or two when people asked if we had music out to say, ‘yeah, we have this.’ Everytime I listen to it, it sounds a little bit better than I expect it too, but that having been said, I didn’t know how to fucking sing.
Shannon: Yeah, I didn’t know anything about recording. I mean I didn’t know anything about drumming.
Abby: That was all of us. I think the other thing we wanted to achieve was we wanted it to feel super full. Not just with the guitar layering, but with a fuller sound like when we play live.
Diego: With punk, you know you want to be not too polished, but a little gritty.
Shannon: I think this record finds a good medium in that. It really sounds like us.
What aspect of the growth in the musicianship of the band are you most excited about since your inception? Shannon: I will say sounding less like a pop-punk band. I know that sounds weird because I love pop-punk. It’s like we are kind of getting away as a band from your standard variety pop-punk. A lot of the songs are a little more punk rock and full.
Diego: If you listen to the album -- I don’t know why you would put the album on shuffle -- intentionally our older songs are up front with the exception of “Getting There.” The second half of the record is songs we have created far more recently. The feeling was this is the direction we are going in. The first half of the record is more straight up pop-punk. The second half is different and us trying more things. It’s the difference going from knowing that I can sing, but now I can perform. I can write a song, but now I know what kind of song I want to write. I can play drums, but what mic do I want for this song? It’s understanding what we are capable of. We didn’t have that much of an understanding before. In my opinion, one of the things I’m most excited about is the vocals. My favorite commentary on the album was from a friend who said Abby sounds like you and you sound like Abby. You know how to sing now and she knows how to perform. Also, Shannon is way more in control of their drumming now. The things they are doing --
Shannon: Like note clicking!
The excitement from Ramona when discussing their new album is palpable and it became increasingly clear as our interview progressed. During a break in the conversation, the band began asking me about what my favorite songs on the album. You could tell they were very excited to release these songs to the world, our conversation coming just a few days ahead of the release. And it’s clear why! Not only is Deals, Deals, Deals! one of the year’s best pop-punk albums, it’s also inspired a new drive and ambition in the band. They are ready to outwork and prove to everyone how strongly they believe in this collection of songs. One of the songs that jumped out at me immediately was “Not Your Token.” The song deals with self-worth and identity. The second verse that goes “I’m not your token / I’m a fucking person / That you reduce to what you see / But you can’t reduce me” connects powerfully and at a very raw level. What inspired this song and is it related to the punk scene? Diego: We knew and know that adding us to a bill immediately increases the diversity of the bill by quite a bit.
Shannon: By one hundred percent!
Diego: That doesn’t mean that us being there means we are now proud of that bill. We’re not trying to be the only woman, the only queer people, the only Latino on a bill. I think that particular lyric is us showing that we are confident as a band. We want to be a good fucking band and work really hard to be a good fucking band. If you are going to focus on what our band is made up of than you’re going to be sorely disappointed on how stoked my reaction is going to be. That’s not saying that it’s not extremely important to us, but we are not your token. We are not looking to be in a band because of only what we look like. We want to fucking work it. Even with the album artwork, that’s what we were going for.
Abby: Yeah, we want to play with it.
Shannon: We have self-awareness.
Abby: I think our identification in these groups is so influential on who we are as a person, but we don’t want it to be our only identity. We are so much more. It’s a huge part of who we are, but we don’t want to be only be judged on it.
Diego: I want it to be like, ‘this band is really good, oh shit there isn’t a white guy in that band?’ I think six months into us being a band one of our friends was like, ‘what’s it like to not have a cis-straight white guy in the band?’ We were like, ‘oh shit, we don’t have a cis-straight white guy in the band?’ This is literally the first time we realized it. Our goal is to be a good fucking band first and foremost and we think it’s fucking awesome that we also represent all this stuff. On the other end, we recognize it. It would be lazy on my part to not acknowledge it. If you’re a good band, if you’re a good ally, awesome! We want to to play with you.
You worked with Jay Maas from Defeater for your new record. He has a history of working with hardcore and post-hardcore bands. What made you decide to work with him and did his background in hardcore add additional elements to your approach to the record? Shannon: He loves pop-punk. Like he really loves pop-punk. He also did engineering on our friends in Dead Bars’ abum and he did Rebuilder.
Diego: He and my brother became friends from him doing Rebuilder. To be honest, I was afraid of going with Jay because he was a good engineer that my brother recommended. I talked to him and he talked to me about some of his favorite albums; Dear You by Jawbreaker and Apathy and Exhaustion by the Lawrence Arms --
Abby: Doesn’t he have a big Get Up Kids tattoo?
Diego: With those albums, once I knew that was the type of album he wanted to make I was sold. The last time we recorded was Sad Brunch. We did that Hard Sulks split where we just re-recorded a bunch of demos. So we hadn’t really been in a studio with a formal engineer. Even though I’ve never been super into hardcore, I’ve known Jay Maas since I was kid and I respect him. The best thing I can say about him is as amateur musicians, as people who are new to being in a formal studio and that process, his ability to have mistakes carry zero weight was amazing. It was so low pressure. On one hand, he is a very no bullshit person and you are expected to be prepared and know what you are doing, but there was no belaboring it if we messed up. It was fluid.
Abby: He’s professional at what he does and so talented. That enables him to make the process easy for us because he can go back really quickly and help us fix little things. We very quickly grew to trust his abilities. Shannon: Every hand that was involved in this record we had confidence in. It was really cool to have the people we did involved in the process.
Diego: It was like ten hands!
I’ve seen Ramona around five times live within the last year. Either with a huge, established band like The Lawrence Arms or The Menzingers or with upcoming bands like Jabber or Well Wisher that are part of your scene. Does the band approach these shows differently given the difference in scope? Shannon: Someone told me play every show like you are playing to 10,000 people.
Diego: Can you name that person?
Shannon: Yeah, it was --
Abby: Are you serious, that was the moment?
Shannon: That was the moment.
Abby: Honestly, the biggest thing I’ve learned about being in a band is you never know how a show is going to turn out and you never know what show is going to be a really awesome show. There were so many shows that we’ve played where we’ve gone into it and there’s nothing going on in the Facebook event and we don’t know any of the bands and it ends up being the most awesome thing ever. I go into everything with low expectations so I’m just like we are going to do what we can and you’ll never when you’re having a great time. That to me was like the show we played with Steve-O, so many connections we made as a band were based off that one show. We didn’t have any expectations. I literally feel like that show led us to where we are. We made friends and met Toby from Red Scare and I had no expectations for that show. I try to go into it with that mentality.
Diego: In terms of differences on how I approach those two shows, I want to be the best band on every show that we play. That isn’t to say I want every other band to be bad. I want every band to be amazing. I just want to be a little bit better. It feels fucking amazing to play an awesome show. I know I’ll never upstage The Menzingers or Iron Chic, but if I can walk off that stage and be like, ‘if the people in that crowd knew my lyrics, they would have had a fucking blast.’ I want to appear as hungry as we are. When are playing with smaller bands and at local shows, I get fired up because people don’t realize they are going pay three times the prices to see these bands in a few years. That’s not just about me. That’s about the bands that we are playing with. I mean that one thousand percent about the other bands. We play with so many fucking amazing bands so people should be there. For the people who are there, I owe it to them to play the best fucking show we can. I want to be an Iron Chic and the Menzingers with those type of bands, with our friends on those type of tours.
At the end of this album cycle, what’s going to make this album a success?
Abby: To make a million dollars. Does that answer your question?
Shannon: I want a song to be featured in a Wes Anderson movie.
Abby: To me, it means something if it means something to other people. Both in terms of the lyrics and becoming part of the repertoire of their own lives, but also just seeing representation. Someone saying, ‘oh I see someone doing this so I can do it too.’ I think that influences all of us, seeing people who look like us or have the same ideals and they connect to music. It makes you want to do it too. I would love to be that for other people because of all the times someone did that for me.