Chicago-based emo punks Rust Ring are just days away from releasing their superb second album North to the Future. Named after the state motto of Alaska, the album chronicles a fictional trip up north and explores identity, sexuality, and gender, as well as highlighting the importance of working through self-doubt with image-laden lyrics full of heart and humour. Rust Ring will be hitting the road for a handful of Midwest shows on February 23 and North to the Future will be out everywhere on February 24 via Knifepunch Records.
Punknews editor Em Moore caught up with lead vocalist, guitarist, and keyboardist Joram Zbichorski over Zoom to discuss the new album, embracing a new style of songwriting, adding two new members to the band, her thoughts on the magic of winter, and so much more. Read the interview below!
You released the first single from North To the Future called “Incognito” on your own label Worry Records before you signed with Knifepunch Records in December. How did you decide to work with Knifepunch Records? What has working with them been like?
I put “Incognito” out myself because the band hadn’t been active for almost three years at that point. We went through a lineup change and that was me being like, “we still exist. Here’s what it is now”. I contacted Knifepunch in the fall of last year once we had the whole album done. I sent it to them and they were really supportive and were like, “we love this! Let’s work together”. That all happened right before Fest. Dani from Knfepunch lives in Florida, so I got to meet a lot of the Knifepunch people and a lot of the bands who played Fest. Suddenly I got to meet all these people in person and introduce myself. They’ve been really nice and overly supportive of it which is really cool. [laughs]
You recently released a live video for “Guilty” and this is the first live video with Rust Ring’s new lineup.
Right, and the first time the new lineup is on recording too because the album is all me, basically. Our drummer, William Covert, is amazing and the band started with just the two of us. He’s been my partner in crime for the whole time. [laughs] The album’s mainly the two of us with some other people helping out with different things here and there but I do all the guitar and bass and keyboard and vocals for the most part. I wrote all these songs and I was like, “I need other people to play them”. We were a three-piece band before but when I wrote these songs I was like, “there’s no way this is going to work with three people anymore”. Ian Terry and Jaclyn Nora are the two new members and it’s been super great working with them. I’ve played in bands with Ian for the last ten years and he had filled in before on bass with Rust Ring. Jaclyn used to play in this really cool band called Mollow and she was another Chicago musician that I thought was really cool and liked a similar style of music. So when we were thinking about adding another guitar player, I only had her in mind. I was like, “I’m going to ask you and if you don’t do it then I don’t even know who to ask”. [laughs] The “Guilty” video is kinda their first thing but moving on we’re going to record as that band more. Future stuff may sound a little different and less just me.
I had a lot of friends do some stuff here and there on the album. Jaclyn and Ian are both on the gang vocals and Ian plays trumpet on the record too. They’re both on there in some way which is cool. The end of “Guilty” is Jaclyn’s moment, she kinda screams the end and you can hear it really well in the gang vocals. It’s cool that they both have points that feature them on the album even though most of it was me.
You have live shows coming up later this month. How do you think that the new lineup will affect the dynamic of those shows?
I think it’s going to be really positive. I think we’re learning to play off each other a lot more and both of them are singing a lot too which I think brings a totally different dynamic. Our old bass player sang a bit but it was much more just me singing in the forefront, whereas now, especially with both of them singing and Jaclyn singing a lot more, there’s more energy. My mindset with the band is anyone who wants to sing should be able to sing. I’ve tried to get our drummer to sing and he does sing on the album but he won’t do it live. [laughs] I bought him this specific goose-neck microphone stand because he was like, “oh, I want that” and I was like, “let’s try it out!” but it just never worked. But they’ve all been really fun to play with. Ian and Jaclyn are the chillest people I know, so it’s just easy.
Your album takes its name from one of the lyrics in the album opener “Outline Alaska”. Why did you choose to name the album after this line specifically?
“North to the Future” is the state motto of Alaska, so that’s where that comes from. The album is a concept album about going to Alaska. Obviously, that first song is the only one that mentions Alaska by name. I think I just wanted something in the title to convey a little more about the album since it’s not mentioned in every song so there’s some allusion to Alaska there when you’re listening to the whole thing.
What drew you to setting the album in Alaska?
That was the first thing that I came up with for any of the lyrics and stuff. I wanted it to feel like it was set there and I think there’s something about it being so isolated, especially from the rest of our country. We can still go there and live there because it’s in the US but there’s just something about it. I’ve never been there, so I guess I’m making it up, but there’s something about it that has that magical feeling and the lyrics are sometimes kind of fantastical in that way. It just felt like the right thing. The first lyrics I wrote were for “Outline Alaska” and that also sealed it too where I was like, “oh yeah, this is what it’s about”.
That’s really interesting because when I was listening to it, I thought that you went on a trip there.
No, I do want to go though. [laughs]
The Alaska tour.
Yes! I’ve always wondered if it would ever make sense for a band to tour up there but probably not. I guess you could just fly there and play a show.
That would be really cool. In “One Polar Night” you mention the cold having a lot of power and being transformative. Why do you think the cold is so powerful?
I grew up in the Midwest and have had heavy winters my whole life so it’s just something I’ve always kinda dealt with. I’ve always really liked winter and snow and stuff and there’s always something kinda magical about the winter. It sucks sometimes but you feel like a different person when you’re outside and you’re cold and you’re like, “all I can think about is being cold” or whatever. [laughs] I live in Chicago and if you’re going out in the winter and you’re walking somewhere when you get into the place, you’re so warm. The feeling of being in a place is so good in the winter because the outside is so rough. I think it’s not just the cold but also getting to that place that isn’t cold is a journey too.
How would you describe your songwriting process?
I’ve been writing songs my whole life and I approached this album very differently than I ever have before. I used to always write the lyrics first. I wrote them in a notebook, very journal-entry kind of stuff, and then I wrote a song with the lyrics in mind. For this album, I did the opposite where I wrote the full songs first. I did nonsense lyrics so all the early demos are unlistenable because it’s just fake lyrics and stuff. [laughs] We actually recorded all of the instruments before I wrote any of the lyrics. The album recording process took a while because there was this break where we had recorded a bunch of it and I was like, “okay, now I need to finish the lyrics”. I don’t know if I would ever wait until the last minute to do it again. I had these whole songs written and recorded without lyrics basically. The way I wrote these lyrics was very research-based because it was set in Alaska. I mention some of these places and sometimes it felt like I had to look things up, like that state motto thing. It’s not like I knew that off the top of my head. That kind of lyric writing for me was cool and different from how I’d done stuff before because it was like I was diving into this other world and concept that I needed to do some research on before I wrote about it.
That makes sense. Did you feel like you could be more creative with your lyrics when you didn’t have to worry about writing the music or was it the opposite?
The fake lyrics had a certain pattern of syllables and thinking like, “oh, I have to fit these words into this amount of syllables” was really helpful for me. I think it actually forced me to be more creative than I would have been otherwise. I find myself to be the most creative when there’s some amount of limitations and so having that limitation made me think outside the box a little bit more and be like, “how do I work within these limitations?”. I think I used to write more lyrics that maybe didn’t mean as much and with this, I’m like, “oh I have this amount of syllables so I need to say this thing or convey this thing in this amount of words”. It forced me to use words that I wouldn’t have used otherwise that convey more than if I had’ve written it down first, I would’ve used more words and maybe been less descriptive in a certain way.
Would you write like that again?
Yeah. I have some new songs that I don’t have lyrics for yet. [laughs] So I am currently writing that way. It’s helpful, I think. This is something that I never thought about before really, but with the fake lyrics, there are certain sounds that I realize now need to be there. Where I’m like, “oh, this part sounds good if I have an ‘ah’ and this would sound weird if I sang this word here instead of this one”. Like with “Outline Alaksa”, I had the held “a” at the end of Alaska and there were certain syllables and words that were already there that I based it around. It sometimes felt like a little math equation, finding the right words that fit in with the fake lyrics.
You’ve also mentioned that “Tiny Frame” is one of your favourite songs that you’ve ever written. What makes it your favourite?
I think musically that one is the most different from anything that I’ve written for the most part. I tried to fit a lot into that song and I think it worked. Lyrically, it’s the most personal one and it’s about my own gender and sexuality in a way that none of the other songs really are. I think that’s mainly it.
In the video for “Tiny Frame” there’s a part where you’re reading a book in front of a bookshelf that’s filled with Stephen King novels. What were you reading in the video and do you have a favourite Stephen King book?
So the Stephen King collection is my partner’s but I have become a little bit initiated into it. [laughs] I think I had pulled up Salem’s Lot or something for the video. It was definitely whichever one looked the best for the video. But my favourite one is Misery. I like that book a lot and I read it over the pandemic. The movie is really good but because the book is so in his mind and his thoughts and stuff it’s totally different.
In the video for “Incognito” you play a ghost who haunts a Rust Ring cassette tape. Have you ever owned anything that you thought was haunted?
I wish that I’ve had more supernatural, spiritual experiences in my life. I’ve never seen a ghost or anything but I would love to at some point. [laughs] Or feel like something was haunted. I’m very into that kind of stuff but I’ve never had any experiences myself.
Do you have an ideal supernatural experience?
I feel like I would want a friendly ghost. Ideally something in a hotel, somewhere you can leave, not in your house. You’d be in a hotel and see a ghost at night and say goodbye and leave the next day. Nothing scary.
Maybe that’s the pull to Alaska, there’s something there.
There’s some ghosts haunting up there. [laughs]
On North to the Future one of the main themes is dealing with and working to overcome self-doubt. What advice would you give someone who is struggling with self-doubt?
Trust your gut. I feel like you know what’s best for you and if you’re doubting that, whatever your gut is telling you is usually the best move. Listen to yourself and trust yourself. That’s something that I’ve realized lately. I used to not really trust myself and be much more of a self-doubter but more recently I’ve been able to listen to myself more.
How would you describe the punk and emo scenes in Chicago?
It’s cool. It’s been very different since COVID and stuff. Coming back, I feel like a lot of the bands from before have dissolved or done other stuff or blown up or something. [laughs] There’s a lot of newer bands that I feel like have only really been playing in this more post-pandemic world and it’s cool. I feel like the newer bands have a different mentality. I feel like there used to be a lot heavier or weirder sounding bands and I feel like the newer direction is going a little more fun, for lack of a better word. [laughs] It’s more fun to see some of the newer bands now I think, where I feel like the older bands used to take themselves so seriously. I think I’m trying to do that more now. I used to take myself too seriously and now I’m like, “I just want to have fun”.
Do you think that’s because of the pandemic or is it more of a natural progression?
I think the pandemic made it feel like there was a divide. I don’t know if it was because of the pandemic but it does suddenly feel different.
What’s one thing that you’re doing to have more fun with things and not be as serious?
I’m trying to be funnier and tell more jokes and stuff on stage. I definitely used to get in my own head and think every show was like some divine moment or whatever. I feel like that used to be my mindset and now I’m like, “I just wanna have fun up there.” I hope I’m getting across to people, but in the end, if I had fun then that’s all that matters.
I read somewhere that you used to do improv comedy. Has that helped with moving in a more fun direction? What do you think the connection between doing improv and making music is?
You’ve dug up my scary past. [laughs] I did improv all through high school and college. That was partially why I moved to Chicago because it’s a big improv city and I was initially thinking I wanted to do improv. But once I wasn’t doing it for a little bit, I was like, “oh, I don’t think I like doing this that much”. But I do feel like music is now my outlet to be a little funny. I do like having that outlet of trying to be a little funny. With lyrics on the album, there’s a few almost jokes thrown in here and there. I still have some need or want to be funny sometimes. It definitely informs my lyrics and how I am on stage.
Do you have a jokey line on the album that you’re most proud of?
I have a couple. In “Incognito” during the second verse I say, “Lo-fi hip hop radio / I need to relax slash chill tonight”. I think that’s really funny. I listen to a lot of the lo-fi radio stuff and the title is always something-slash-something. And on “One Polar Night”, also in the second verse - I guess that’s my joke time [laughs] - in allusion to the movie Frozen I say, “I want Elsa’s life” and then I say, “God knows I’ve tried” which, in “Let It Go” she says, “Heaven knows I’ve tried”. “Heaven” didn’t really fit the lyric so I said “God” instead. I also think that’s really funny.
What are you listening to now?
I feel like a band I’m always listening to is Adventures. It’s the same people who are in the metal band Code Orange with one other member. It’s like a pop-punk, emo-ish band that they did in 2015. Now Code Orange has blown up so Adventures is non-existent. Their album Supersonic Home came out in 2015 and that’s something that I’m always coming back to and always listening to. But as far as newer bands and stuff, I’ve been listening to Expert Timing a lot and Palette Knife BS Cheerbleederz from the UK, they’re really cool. I have my staple bands too. I’ve been listening to The Promise Ring a lot more recently. I’m from Milwaukee so they’re like the main emo band from there.
A good mix. What’s next for Rust Ring?
I’m working on some new songs. Especially because we have this different lineup I want to do an EP after this. This band has also never done an EP and most bands start by doing EPs. [laughs] I have four or five songs and we’ve been working on a cover too. Hopefully, we’ll be recording that and putting that out at some point. But yeah, trying to write as this lineup is where we’re currently at. I think we’re trying to do some touring this summer. Also, I just want to have fun with it. Sometimes doing band stuff has dragged me down too much or I’ve taken it too seriously, so I’ve been trying to keep that fun mindset into the future. As long as we’re enjoying it that’s all that matters.
What’s the cover you’re working on?
We’re doing “Heaven is A Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle. I have somewhat of a penchant for 80s music. [laughs]