Not too many times in a lifetime you meet a person who encompasses the ethos of an evolving city's punk community then walks in Philly based Crossed Keys. These punks have all been around this scene playing in punk/melodic hardcore bands for the last 20+ years in bands such as Kid Dynamite, Ink & Dagger, Step Ahead, Kill The Man Who Questions, Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer, Halo of Snakes, Hey Angel, and The Curse. Punknews Contributing Editor Samantha Barrett sat with lead vocalist Josh Alvarez to talk about the new record, and being constantly busy in the city of brotherly/sisterly love.
Photo credit to Ashley Vaivada (IG: @Devilinnj_esq)
Hey Josh! So let’s start with this, to quote your press blurb, “We know the last few years have been tough for everyone. It takes a little effort just to get out of bed. Recognizing that we’re all in this together, CROSSED KEYS BELIEVES IN YOU. “
How does this all tie in with your new record?
It's one of those things, when you are in your mid-40’s and you're still playing punk rock with other people that are also in their mid-40’s. There's just a moment where you're like, what am I doing? You know, but also like during just these wild times of a pandemic. I lost a job, and things were just going bad. I had no idea what I had left.
The way that Crossed Keys writes is that those guys come up with like their guitar riffs and then we build around that. Once everything's done, they give me the final songs. I must come in and weave a vocal line through two guitars and a bass. I have to make it make sense. Apparently not too many people do it this way, but this is the process that I have.
Right before everything shut down, everybody was asking for the lyrics for the record. The problem was I was so depressed because I had lost a job and it was like a traumatic loss of a job. I didn't know what I was gonna do. I was just so forlorn and lacking in inspiration. I had no idea what to say to anybody.
A group of friendly breakfasters and I (I belong to a breakfast club) did a trip to the Delaware Water Gap for tubing, and I accidentally ingested entirely more weed than I've ever had in my entire life through an edible. So, you know at this point I have no idea what I'm doing. We went from the Delaware Water Gap straight to practice. There at practice I am higher than I've ever been and there's a moment where I'm just drinking a seltzer and still really high. Everyone's playing and Wags (Wagenschutz) starts getting upset, they've been waiting for these lyrics, which I haven't been able to come up with. He starts yelling at me while he's playing, he's loud and everyone's loud and yelling at me. He's like Josh, you're not even going to try. To his point, I wasn't singing. I was just sitting there looking at a seltzer can, and I remember looking at him and he was shouting over all the instruments. Like, you're not even gonna give us a shot, you’re not even gonna give us, like a testing line, you know. I could only think, “Man, I wonder who he's yelling at?” and I just kept on looking at this seltzer can. It got to a point where afterward everyone was not upset, but they were just acting in a very brotherly way. You gotta start making, and it was one of those moments where it hit me, even though I was stoned and hydrated. So, then the next week I had all eleven of them written, and I locked myself in my practice space with a computer and a microphone, and I recorded scratch vocals for all eleven of them. It took me 12 hours, but I wrote the songs that day. For the most part, everything came out almost like the way you pull a potato out of the ground, like fully formed.
One of the things that I think Crossed Keys lyrically is known for is that I write about what I know. I'm inspired by the people whom I look up to. So that's how songs like “Jeff Pelly Vs the Empire”, which is a song about my friend, Jeff Pelly, or “Everything Breaks”, which is a song about my other friend. Another song titled “Times of Grace”, is about my friend Grace. I also wrote a song about my friend Bruce, which is called “Vina Park”, as well as a song about my brother called “Pucho.” So, I just write songs about the people that I know, right? The rest of it was just about all of the anxieties and misgivings and just the straight-up fears of a middle-aged Filipino bald man living in Philadelphia. I don't know if anyone's gonna resonate with this. I don't even know who will listen to this record, but it's gonna be honest, it's gonna be bloody, and it's gonna be real. That's what it was. When everyone heard what I came up with, they were like you've been sitting on this? I was like, nah dude, I just came up with this shit and just poured it all out.
It was the edible wasn't it?
It totally helps. I don't know if my songwriting has improved because of it but I’ll tell you something, it's been a better life since. At the end of the day, Andrew said “Listen, man. We all believe in you. We just know that you can do this.” That was the thematic line that towed me through all of the songs.
That is great.
It's a true story.
Here's the other thing…during the pandemic, I had a reckoning with myself in terms of calling and purpose versus survival, and these songs are what came of that. It's not about altruism or selfishness? It's about honesty, you know, and it's about just at a base level who you are.
Yeah, I hope to never do it again, but I do think you came out of this better in a way.
What makes this album different than Saviors? Saviors was still just us trying to figure out how to fit Wags (Wagenschutz) into the band because he's our third drummer. We were having a Spinal Tap moment with that position. The way it came about was that Steve Roche, who was our second drummer, who had played on I'm Just Happy That You're Here, later told us, “this isn't for me” because he's used to playing in bands like Off Minor and Saetia. I get it, this is old man punk rock, and melodic stuff is probably not his lane, you know? So, he dipped and then we were left with the decision of whether or not to continue and find another person. I saw Wags at a show, I think it was Strike Anywhere at Union Transfer and I was like, “Hey Dave, are you doing anything right now?” Dark Blue had stopped because Sharkey had moved. And then he was just like “Nope, in between bands” and that's when I was like, “Listen, I got a thing maybe you wanna hear us out, it was geographically close to his house. We practiced at Dave's house and that's like, right down the street from where Wags lives so he was like, “Yeah, let me give it a shot”. Wags came in and then he was like, “oh, yeah, this just feels OK.” And with that I said, "Guess Dave Wagenschutz is joining our band?” It was one of those things where all of us grew up worshiping bands like Lifetime, Ink and Dagger, and all that stuff. We wrote Saviors>/i> with him and it came together, we were not really sure of our footing then so by the time we got to the pandemic, we were already locked in this.
And we're just like, “ohh Wags is not just Dave Wagenschutz, he's now one of us.”
So moving forward into writing Believes In You, we definitely saw ourselves together.. So writing with him as a unit as opposed to us writing around him or us just being jazzed that he was in the band felt different this time in the sense that the songs did feel more complete. There was a moment while we were writing when Wags stopped and he was like “Dude, I feel like I'm in Lifetime and it's 1993 again.” At that moment when he said that I went to the bathroom, and I cried because when are you gonna ever hear that? Not very often in life you know. That's the main difference, I feel as though we moved forward through this, even though my piece came a little bit later than everyone else's. I guess that's why the songs sound different from that first record or a second record.
Is it just your ethos to pack in as much Philadelphia power as you possibly can in your records? This album, you have like Andy Clark and Dave Klyman (who is in Restorations), working on this and then of course you get like a little bit South of Philadelphia, Brian McTernan working on this record. Was this a conscious decision for you to have these people working on this record?
In regards to Andy and Dave Klyman, that came together because we knew that Dave played in Restorations and he's used to wrangling 2 guitar players, which is a hard thing to do. This could have easily fallen into just a jumbled mess, but Andy and Dave are awesome and they were super fun to work with. They're out of Retro City Studios in Germantown and we banged it out with them for maybe three to four days and they were not afraid to give us feedback. Their sensibility just kind of lined up with ours, a perk that we all love with Restorations.
About Brian McTernan, I work with his brother, and I know both of them pretty well. When I was having these issues with these lyrics that weren't coming, I talked to him about it.Brian sings in Be Well, which is one of my favorite bands currently. Being able to be friends with someone like him, you can just be like “Yo dawg. This is going on and I don't know how to put this into words?” He always was just very gracious with his time. He was also always happy to talk things through in terms of just lyrical composition. When I told him that we need to lay down these vocals, he was like “just come down and we'll figure it out.” Actually, we recorded it in Delaware even though his studio is in Baltimore, and he gave me 5 days with just him and I for the first couple of days. Just watching the way that man's mind works in terms of recording is like wow. It’s not only vocals, it also includes harmonies, melodies, and all that stuff. It really was a master class, and I will never forget and will forever be grateful for that space. That's probably one of the greatest gifts that anyone has given to me in my musical life. I can't say enough wonderful things about him.
Between the amount of time that he has spent recording all of these epic projects and then the perk of being in Be Well, you know that it's just a perfect storm.
Yeah to have a person like that see in you something that is special. There was a moment when he dropped me off at the train station so I can take a train back to Philly and I just remember, him saying, “Dude, what we recorded this week, people are gonna be driving on this road and singing those songs, and it's gonna be part of who they remember themselves to be”. It was a moment you know, when you want to cry again. To admire someone so much, and to be in the presence of such creative energy, and then on top of that to be recognized that they see and resonate with the same energy in yourself. That's a gift. That's the part where it's like, this isn't my voice trying to be you, this is you trying to accept or trying to help me accept that this is me. It's a hard pill to swallow sometimes. It's very intimidating, you know, especially when you're like a dude like me, I'm a nobody. It's hard to think of yourself in different terms than you've already thought this way for so long. And recording this record with him was part of the revelation for me. That was part of the power and the understanding.
Well, I think coming from our background, being an Asian in the punk scene for many, many years. It is quite different for us because we're not seeing the representation of us out there doing the things that we would love to do.
No, you're not wrong.
You know in the scene it’s definitely different… we may think of ourselves as less than and we're just here trying to actively participate.
Yeah, it's really uncomfortable.
When we played with Strike Anywhere, and right afterwards, someone came up to me and said “Hey, it's cool seeing a person of color sing for a punk band.” I was like “Thank you”, like how do you respond to that or people coming up and saying “You sound like Lance Hahn” and I'm like “come on, dawg.” But then it's the added pressure, especially when you're the singer. I feel like it's not just me, but it's every Black and brown person in this room, you know, and maybe I'm the only one. And that's a lot of pressure. At the end of the day, my main move is that I wear floral shirts created by my friend Grace. She makes these specifically for me, and she's made me one for every show that we've ever played. That's the joke, right? Stuff like that feels like armor, even though it's fabric and flowers and all that shit. It's one of those things where these are made by the hands of one of my dearest friends in life and we're both Asian people. That alone for me I know it's cool. It's not only funny, but it's also necessary because when you go out there and you're the mouthpiece. You feel like you need something to cover you, and sometimes you don't feel like you. Not that I don't feel like my boys have my back, I'm just saying that you're in the crucible of judgment. From that point on, at a different standard than other people you know. It's terrifying and it still scares me to this day but sometimes you just gotta put on your floral shirt and get it done and that's where I'm at.
Well, I think you're doing a great job at it all. I think that you know, your floral shirts are doing a great job as your armor, whatever makes you comfortable out there. You are definitely 100% correct that sometimes we just need a Linus blanket to go out there with us, doing the things that we do…
Yeah, for sure.
I do love the fact that there is a way more people of color in the scene in bands these days because it's very comforting at least for me.
No, I agree. It's not just race, right? It's all like the reason we came to punk rock and hardcore. When things were difficult, and you needed to have a space where you can feel safe and you can feel heard. I wasn't getting that from any other music. It's all types of people from all different strata of socioeconomic backgrounds. All people of diverse cultures and colors, all people of different genders. I don't know enough to say that this is, like legitimately the best thing, right? But I do know enough to say that this feels a lot more diverse and inclusive than what I grew up with. I like to think that just by not giving up, just by not dropping out, we've managed to help cultivate the road for this to become a reality.
So, the album art. It seems like a very near and dear thing to you guys.
So, tell me why it's so important for this specific record?
I'm mostly because the poppiest song we wrote is called “Rest in Peace Arch Street” and that song is about the Trocadero. It's literally the only outlier on the record that is like nostalgic to the point of, like, all referencing Philadelphia, right and it was one of those things where I was like, well, if this is gonna be on this record, it lyrically falls outside of what the themes for every single other song on the record. The joke was, what if we make the track the focal point of the artwork? The Troc is where we met everybody. That's where I first met Wags. Andrew was a bouncer there. Beau was a bouncer there. We saw our friends set at one time or another at that venue. We may have been employed there or banned from there. It was very critical to our education. The artwork came from Justin Gray, and when it came to it, we're like “Yo dog. We want to do this as our artwork?” He was like, “Fuck yeah, let's do this.” I think it's oddly sentimental and nostalgic, while still feeling fresh and new, because the Trocadero is now closed. It's one of those places that is as important as it was to all of us. It was one of two places in Philadelphia that I knew how to get to without getting lost or not knowing where I was or being afraid and for me it was an incredibly special place.
This is the first place I lost my glasses, during a Fugazi show. It was awful. This dude was standing on my foot, and he had a huge sun tattooed on the back of his neck. And that's the last thing I saw before he grabbed me and threw me. I was like 15 and my glasses went flying. I had to ride the train alone by myself without glasses.
My dad was like, “Joey. What happened to your eyeglasses?” And I was like, “I don't know, dad, they're gone.” We had to go back, and I had to go and try to get into the Troc after it was closed. True story.
It's also like you're trying to capture this in a moment of time as you remember it before it turns into complete trash.
You're not wrong. The other bit is that “Rest in Peace Arch Street" is actually a piece of art by my friend Hawke, he did a painting about the Trocadero. He was also a bouncer there. He named it Rest in Peace Arch Street. I asked him before we finished the song, “Yo, can I use that for the name of this song?” And he was “yeah, sure.” So, there's a lot of, like, familial ties to this concept, I guess, it's funny that it's the only song on the record that's not about me being weak.
You are also the host of a really, really long-standing podcast. It's called Cinepunx. It merges your two loves, movies and punk. So far you have about 170ish episodes. How did this podcast come about?
Liam and I are both members of the Philadelphia Film Society and it's one of those things where it was like me, my wife (Meilani), Liam, and Liam's wife (Sue), were the only people of color that we knew in the whole film society. It came about because one of the movies that was up for Oscar consideration was a foreign movie called Amour. It's a French movie, and it's about 2 old people that are in love and they're married. So, Liam and I are in a screening room because one of the things the film society did back then was when Oscars season happened. They would screen the Oscars contenders to like 12 people, and it was really exclusive and in a weird cinema room.
We were doing that and at the end of the movie, one of the other critics was like, what did you think? And I was like, “well, it's no Dumb and Dumber” and then the dude was like, “what's Dumb and Dumber?” I looked at Liam, like he's not joking, no clue what the fuck Dumb and Dumber was? So then after that, Liam and I were like, you know what? We're the only people here who are people of color. We're the only people here who have tattoos. Let's get the fuck out of here. We left and we ended up starting Cinepunx because we wanted to have an outlet for ourselves, and for people who are people of color and who are people who are involved in music, but also love cinema. The whole goal was to not pay for movies and it worked. We're gonna keep on going till we get on that stupid list and then we did. Then we're like, OK, we just gotta maintain now. It's been about 10 years. Actually, it's one of those things where like Liam was like, well, a lot of people don't know that punk people have a cinema background and a lot of cinema people don't know anything about punk, so it wouldn't be funny if we talk to our friends like Jason Shevchuk, who was our first guest, and who has a degree in film. We've had a bunch of people on the podcast that have cinema backgrounds that are also musicians that no one knows about and that was part of the plan and it worked. Maybe it's just hubris that keeps it going, but I'm trying to keep it going until one of us dies. That's the plan, you know, we'll see what happens.
That's great, I hope that it goes until infinity, so we'll see what happens. You all are making good strides with that.
You're also in another project right now. Hard Turf? So, you just share the stage with Gorilla Biscuits and Kill Your Idols at the FU Church. So how was that?
That night we sold almost all of our merch. We only have 4 shirts left. And we made three different designs. We have 4 left and I'm still unsure how that happened. It was our first show.
I couldn't find any information about you guys.
All of it is shrouded in mystery, because we're mysterious. When they asked us to be on the show to open. We're like holy shit fuck yeah! Our drummer lives in San Francisco, so he had to fly back for it. We had to practice when he got here, then we played the show. As soon as we were like, “Thank you”, our friend Brian showed up, and he had a backpack filled with party liquor from when the Eagles didn't win the Super Bowl. We just proceeded to get tossed and it was incredible. It was like one of the funniest nights of my life.
So how do you have all this time for all this stuff?
Like it's not like we play music because we want to. We are compelled to. I started out as a bass player, and even though I sing for a band and play on my own as a solo act, I miss playing bass and in a band (in that capacity) and I hadn't done it since Solarized. Now it's maybe time to do this again. I just tried to stay creative. I tried to stay productive because what other metrics do we have, you know, like it's not about money, it's not about property or ownership or any of that stuff. It's about love and passion. And that's what I got, music and movies. That's it. So, I know it's ridiculous, but again, the plan is just keep running till the wheels fall off.
Yeah, we'll check back in five years.
I know, right? It'll be horrible. Will go South by then. We'll see. Hopefully, I'll still have all my teeth. (Laugh)
So, you've been around for a really long time in this scene?
True, very old, very old.
Is there a perfect show lineup that you will want to see Crossed Keys on one day?
If Avail and Be Well get to play with Crossed Keys and Hard Turf all i could say is oh dude. I'll lose my fucking mind. Avail was always my favorite band, it's like them and then like Strike Anywhere because I loved Inquisition back in the day. If I were to curate Josh's favorite show of all time? It would have to be, you know, Be Well, Avail and Torches to Rome, even though you know, Rest In Peace, Sarah Kirsch. Also maybe include Policy of Three. Do you remember that magical time when, like, activism and Punk were inseparable? And you could have bands that not only had something to say, but also the means to say it in a way that was euphonious to you. Like I missed that kind of stuff.
Well, we're gonna put this into the ether Internet and see what happens. Let the Internet do its thing.
And they'll be like, Yo, Sammie and Josh got all these old guys to pick up their guitars again. It was dope. Like your welcome world.