Exactly one week ago, North Carolina-based punk rockers Dollar Signs released their superb fifth album Legend Tripping. The band asks themselves what it means to return home as they explore the contradictions of the Southern US, take a close look at the passage of time, and celebrate friendship over the course of 11 tracks. The songs are packed with exciting, layered arrangements and lyrics that burst with horror imagery, folklore, and history. Legend Tripping is available everywhere digitally now and is available physically via Self Aware Records. Dollar Signs are currently touring the US.
Punknews editor Em Moore caught up with lead vocalist and guitarist Erik Button over Zoom to talk about the new album, growing up in the South, the importance of folklore, cryptids, and so much more. Read the interview below!
In July, you announced that Dollar Signs was going to be fully independent and you launched a Kickstarter to fund Legend Tripping with the initial funding goal being reached in under 8 hours. What went into your decision to become fully independent?
We were on Pure Noise Records and in December they decided not to continue our contract with them for the next album. We were at this cabin in the woods in Boone, North Carolina writing the next one so we were all together when we got that news. We were talking about it and we decided we didn’t want to go through the process of trying to find another label and do all that again. A lot of the time, especially when you’re new to a label, they have the power to slot you whenever they want to put it out and we really didn’t want to go another three years before putting a full-length record out. We did the calculations and we were like, “If we did the bare minimum version of our record, what would that cost?” Then we started talking about how we would come up with that money which was roughly $12, 000 so we were like, “We can try the Kickstarter route”. When we launched it, we were pretty modest with our goal because we weren’t really sure how it was going to go but then we hit it in 8 hours and it just kept going after that. We ended up raising $26, 000 which is completely insane. [laughs]
You can do so much with it! One of your stretch goals was to make mini-documentaries about the band. What’s your favourite piece of Dollar Signs lore?
Yeah! I feel like the cool thing about our band is we’ve been around for so long and three of us lived together for four or five years. For us, doing the doc stuff is a fun way to walk down memory lane which our band is pretty notoriously terrible at because we are always thinking about the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. So when we started talking about those videos we were just like, “Oh! Actually, we do have some strange stories!” Every time we go on tour with another band we’re just like, “Ooh, I wonder if they realize we’re kinda boring and we don’t party or anything”. [laughs] But then we’re like, “Well, we might be boring but interesting things happen to us” so it’s fun to explore that.
Where was the first place you went legend tripping? Where was the most memorable?
In the town that I grew up in, there wasn’t a lot to do. When you first get a car it kinda opens up the world to you and I’ve always been interested in that kind of thing. Maybe this isn’t legend tripping specifically but the classic one for us is this place that’s mentioned on the album called the Devil’s Tramping Ground which is basically just a big circle in the forest where nothing grows. The story is that the devil created that ring by walking in circles trying to think of ways to torture humanity which is a pretty fun thought that that would happen in Snow Camp, North Carolina. That’s a pretty classic one but of course, when you go there, it’s just beer cans from teenage kids drinking there or whatever. [laughs]
North Carolina used to be a big textile state but now it’s all basically moved out. There’s an abandoned textile mill that burned down, I think. It’s a very creepy building! So we used to walk all of our high school friends out there and just kick around. Boredom does interesting things to teenage brains in particular.
Go drink with the devil.
Yeah, we weren’t even drinking. [laughs] Our downtown growing up was basically abandoned after the sun went down because it was all businesses so while all the other kids were partying me and my friends would go play hide-and-go-seek through the entire downtown. It is a thing that’s cool to talk about now but definitely made us the opposite of cool at the time. [laughs] The thing I talk about with my parents now is that we never did anything illegal when we were younger - except for trespassing - we just did suspicious things. That’s the best way to describe it.
Where was the photo for the cover of the album taken? Was it at Devil’s Tramping Ground or somewhere else?
In the process of us being like, “We want to do it more DIY”, the guy who ran the studio where we recorded most of our records decided to close the studio and move to New York. So we were like, “Ok, what do we wanna do?” We were looking at a couple of different options. We had written the record in this house in Boone over the course of three different sessions so we were like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to record here?” We asked a friend of ours, Te’Jani, to record the record and he’s like a wiz kid when it comes to recording. Because of the Kickstarter, we got to move up the process a little bit and he agreed to it. He has a few nice microphones and he’s very good at what he does. It was a lot of really hard days, we were recording for 14 hours about every day, but it still seemed laid back because we were in the mountains and there were deer and animals walking around outside the windows while we were recording. Recording is usually like you’re in a box with no sunlight and the days get really weird so it was really nice to record essentially in nature. [laughs]
A more relaxed environment.
Yeah, a much more relaxed environment. No one screamed at each other once, it was great! [laughs] No creative differences, we love that.
What are you pointing at on the album cover?
We were pointing at the mountain range across the way because the way the lights were coming through the trees looked weird when Dylan snapped the picture. That was the other fun thing, pretty much all the photos that we’re using for all the promos are all stuff we took ourselves. It gives it more of a home-video recording kind of feel and I like that a lot.
You’ve mentioned how this new era is about remembering where you’re from and reckoning who you are with where you’re from. What have you learned about yourself and what have you learned about the South since you started working on this album?
I don’t know if I have any clear answers but I will say that it made it a lot more clear about not just the things that I reject about the South and it’s sometimes archaic politics, but also it helped me realize the things I love about living in a place like where I grew up. On “Legend Tripping”, that song is about a group of people feeling like outsiders and how there’s no stronger way to create friendships than through that feeling. I think since I was a teenager I could tell you the things that I didn’t like about where I was from but now that I’ve gotten older and I’ve gotten to travel so much, I don’t think I would want to live in another part of the country. There are things about the South that are very comforting to me still.
What’s one thing that’s comforting?
I think the pace of life in the South is something I really value. Charlotte, where we’re from, is a metropolitan city and most of the people there are really from Buffalo, New York rather than other parts of the South. [laughs] Charlotte doesn’t feel like a major city. The “city” part of Charlotte is essentially like ten square blocks and outside of that, you’re basically back in any smaller town. It’s not like cities where it’s like the “metropolis” area and then 100 miles of suburbs around it. You could be standing in the city centre of Charlotte and if you know which way to go, you can drive 15 minutes and see cows. I feel like that was part of the record too, all of the surreal, strange things that I didn’t think about as weird when I was younger, and then when I look back on it I’m like, “No. There was a lot of weird, weird, weird stuff that no one thought about”.
How would you describe your songwriting process?
Typically it’s starting with one very small idea and then fleshing out that one, singular idea as much as possible. I MC an open mic and I think one thing that I see a lot with new songwriters is that they’re very focused on writing their magnum opus immediately and so every song they write has to have every idea. Whereas for me, I take either one memory or one thing that I want to say and I just try and build the details of that idea as much as I can. That core idea is usually the chorus of the song and then I think about how to recontextualize or add context to it through the verses.
It’s always interesting to see how songs come about.
That’s the best thing about hosting the open mic that I do. I just get to learn how other people write songs. It’s infinitely fascinating to me.
Everyone’s so different.
I definitely prefer writing in the context of a record because that means it gets easier the more you work on it. If you’re like, “Ok, this record is about this thing” that means that if you’re writing a song and you throw away lines, you can still hold onto them because it might be used in another song. For my songwriting, the first four songs are the hardest because I’m trying to figure out how the record sounds and what exactly I’m trying to say. Usually, the last three songs come very quickly because I can just fill in the blanks of the stuff I hadn’t said yet that I wanted to.
Did you have a song off off Legend Tripping that was the most cathartic to write?
Probably the song “Patterson-Gimlin”. It was the last song written for the record and that was the song that just kinda fell out of me. [laughs] Like I was mentioning earlier, I was just thinking about all of those strange things that you don’t really think about, and then looking back it’s weird. Especially when you think about the example from the song which is people getting married on a plantation. You’re just like, “What a strange, strange thing that happens in the South all the time that no one thinks about”. I hadn’t really thought about it until I went to a plantation wedding because I didn’t know that was a thing. This couple was totally normal, normal people, and I was like, “It’s so weird that they didn’t think that maybe this is inappropriate”.
There’s so many other venues!
Yeah! It’s like, “You can go anywhere!” [laughs] I just got married this month and I can tell you there’s a million different options.
You had part of the ceremony on stage at the album release show on Halloween?
Yeah, so that kinda happened by accident. [laughs] We had our family wedding in the mountains of North Carolina at what used to be an old Boy Scout camp. It was a very small wedding and my family is gigantic so we were like, “We want to have a wedding for our friends”. Our original plan was to get married at a different club on October 13 for Friday the 13th but that didn’t work out. Then we were like, “It’s Halloween and I’m about to go on tour. Let’s get married on Halloween, that’s fun!” So we went to the courthouse and the magistrate had just left early so we couldn’t get married there and I was like, “Oh god, what are we gonna do?” But fortunately, the owner of the club, who I’m good friends with, was like, “I know a minister! I’ll see if he can come”. So we got married on stage. I bought the minister a bottle of bourbon because apparently, he likes that. It was chaotic but fun. I’m very thankful to my wife for just rolling with it. She was like, “Yeah, it’s fine. It’s cool”. [laughs]
You incorporate a lot of folklore into the lyrics on the album like the Devil’s Tramping Ground and the Patterson-Gimlin film which you mentioned earlier. Do you have a favourite piece of folklore that made it onto the album?
Obviously, Devil’s Tramping Ground is very tied to my childhood but I’m also really glad I got to name-drop two things that are real but nobody knows what they are. One of them is the Cameron Village Slime Mold. There’s a video of that online and it’s really weird and gross. Then the other thing is the Brown Mountain lights, I’m really glad I got to mention that. Brown Mountain is where Allison and I got married for our family wedding. If you go to this place called Wiseman’s View, which is outside of Asheville, and you look at Brown Mountain during certain times of the year, you can see lights appear over the mountain. It’s pretty well documented. Some people think it’s reflections of cars or trains but there’s also a lot to say that’s not really the case. I accept that the Brown Mountain lights are a real, natural phenomenon but no one really knows what it is. I like that it’s mysterious. I don’t think it’s paranormal or anything but I do think it’s just a weird thing. [laughs]
Nature is weird. I saw the Slime Mold video and I was like, “What even is that?” [laughs]
Yeah, nature is weird. [laughs] People think that it’s a worm colony. There was this long dissertation written by a college grad student about it being a worm colony but then this year another person wrote a different dissertation saying that it can’t be that for all these other reasons. I’m glad that academia is getting really upset at each other over it because to me I’m just like, “That’s just a weird thing, I don’t know how to describe it”.
On “East of the Rockies” people are talking about their paranormal experiences over an instrumental track. How did the idea for this song come about?
We were doing so much with horror imagery but I didn’t want to make it sound like a spooky record because I felt like that was going to make it feel pretty corny with the lyrics that I wrote. We were like, “We want to give them spooky vibes a little bit” so this is the decision we came up with. We tried it with a few different things. I was trying to cut up interviews from the AM show Coast to Coast where it’s just conspiracy theorists calling in to tell their crazy stories. Me and the bass player, Dylan, we work in documentary filmmaking so I was like, “Why don’t we just do that and go interview our friends or bandmembers? We’ll just ask them their stories and we’ll cut them up, and put them in the song”. I feel like it sets a pretty cool vibe for this moment in the middle of the record. I’m usually not drawn to doing instrumental tracks but that one just felt right for the record. Dark ska song, it’s fun! Why not?
Have you ever had a supernatural experience?
I’ve only had one that I can’t fully explain. I used to be a janitor at an elementary and middle school, like a Catholic private school, when I was 18-19 and the building was really old. It was from the 1920s with all hardwood floors. There was this two-week period in the middle of the summer when everyone left the building and me and my friend would wax the floors and make them shine. There was a whole process. It was a two-storey building and when we were on the first floor waxing, we stopped to take a break and we heard what could only be described as footsteps running above us. Our first thought wasn’t “Oh no, ghosts!” it was, “Oh god, we’ve locked a child inside of this building!” But we couldn’t find anyone there. We don’t know what it was. So either it was some kind of animal that makes the sound of children running or it was something else or we committed a crime by locking someone inside of that building for two weeks. [laughs]
For the most part with the paranormal stuff, I think folklore is a really good way that people process stories especially if you live in a place where someone got murdered. That’s why ghosts get incorporated with it because I think it’s a little bit easier for people to wrap their brains around that kind of story than a more dark, true crime story. That’s why for the record it made sense. I’m not a political scientist and I think political music is very difficult to pull off. That’s why I felt like using this kind of imagery was a good lens to explore more political themes or just stuff about living in the South.
It all ties in. “Fight or Flight” is pretty political.
Yes, that song is pretty political! [laughs] But it’s a punk song so you know, it’s fine. [laughs]
Bigfoot stars in your video for “Bless Your Heart” and in the beginning, he’s comparing himself to other cryptids. If you could meet any cryptid which one would it be and why?
I wanna say a North Carolina one but I think I have to say Mothman. I mean, he’s just so cool. Bigfoot seems like a pretty chill cryptid, kinda shy. Or aliens, I feel like aliens would be sick if you count them as cryptids or whatever. I’m going to say Mothman. I want someone to be able to read my mind so maybe he can string out what I think or he can tell me the future. [laughs]
You’re currently touring the US. How does it feel to be playing the new songs live?
It feels great! We have some fill-ins for this tour which is always a little different because we can’t make any last-minute changes to the setlist but we’re having a lot of fun with them so far. I think a primary thing for writing Legend Tripping for all of us was that we have to make it as fun to play as possible because that means that we’ll get excited about always putting the songs in the setlist. We were trying to make music that was a little more exciting to play. For a lot of our older stuff, I would write the songs on acoustic guitar. I would try them out at my open mic and do the revision that way and then I’d send them to the band. The song would be that but louder with a few other things added in. Whereas this time, I focused on writing rock ‘n’ roll songs. They’ve been a lot, a lot, a lot of fun to play. I also understand a lot more about the limits of my voice and keys I can and cannot sing in. It’s been good. We’re learning, we’re growing. [laughs]
Will you ever come back to Canada after the Pouzza border crossing fiasco?
Oh yeah, we’ll be back. We have a trick card for going to Canada and we would’ve used it last time but we didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal. Our bassist’s wife is Canadian so we’re going to get her to help us get merch across the border or we’ll just buy shirts. We love going to Canada a lot so we’ll definitely keep coming back.
I saw you at Pouzza this year and it was one of my favourite sets!
Oh nice, that’s awesome! I felt very stressed out the entire time we were in Canada this year. Pouzza Fest was great, it has nothing to do with them. It was just that we were recovering for the rest of the time we were there. [laughs]
How would you describe the punk scene in North Carolina?
I think for us, living in North Carolina is great if you are in a band because it’s very easy to tour out of. We’re basically in the middle of the East Coast and going up and down the East Coast is super easy. We have some really, really great bands. There’s a bunch of different genres, we go all over the place. Charlotte has the longest-running punk venue in the country, The Milestone Club, which is one of our home bases. There’s a lot of great bands. I hope we can get to a point where we can start taking more North Carolina bands out because I wanna show them off!
Do you have a favourite North Carolina band right now?
I’m not sure if they’re even still active, but the band Yes Chef! from Charlotte is an unbelievably good band. And they’re not from North Carolina but the guy who’s filling in on bass for us, Jarad, he’s in a band called Nerve Endings from Bristol, Virginia that’s also incredible. He’s an unbelievable musician and it’s very funny to watch him play our songs that are pretty simple. [laughs] He makes them sound real good.
What does the future hold for Dollar Signs?
We’re going to keep writing music. We have a lot of Kickstarter fulfillments and stuff to do so after this tour we’re going to get to work on ten cover songs people chose for us to do. One of them is “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus so I’ll have to figure out how we’re going to do that. [laughs] We took songs offline that we didn’t play anymore, they were just acoustic songs basically, but we’re picking five of those songs and bringing them back so that’ll be next. If people like Legend Tripping and it goes well, I do have some other songs that I’m thinking about maybe turning into an EP like, “Here are some other ideas I didn’t get to”. There might be a small Legend Tripping EP but we’ll see how it goes. Creatively my mind changes all the time. [laughs] Besides that, we’ll keep touring. Our favourite thing to do is write songs together so that’s usually at the forefront of it. Touring and playing shows is us celebrating the fact that we wrote those songs.
It’s nice to do it with your friends.
Yeah, exactly! We’re all family. At my wedding, the groomsmen were my brother, Allison’s brother, and the band. So maybe our next press photo will be all of us in suits. [laughs]
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