Friday, March 20, 2015

Interview with Casey Nealon (Youth Funeral, Death Injection)

Last August my good friends Capacities played my town, and they shared with me that they’d soon be breaking up/going on indefinite hiatus due to their drummer relocating to California. I was incredibly bummed; first and foremost because that meant I probably would no longer be seeing them once or twice a year when they went on tour, but also because that meant my favorite current screamo band was basically done. Like youth crew, I feel like screamo is a genre that lots of bands do, but only a few do really well; it’s rare that I feel a band really nails that sound.

It was against the backdrop of losing Capacities that I came across Youth Funeral, and man, do they ever nail it. The controlled chaos, the gut-wrenching emotion, it’s all there. The New Hampshire four-piece has been around for a couple years now and has registered an e.p. and a split under their belt, as well as the recent 7” “See You When I See You” which finds the band hitting full stride.

I decided to reach out to guitarist/vocalist Casey Nealon to learn more about the band, and came to find out that in addition to Youth Funeral, Casey also fronts the early-80’s inspired hardcore/punk band Death Injection who just released an LP on Triple B Records.

He’s certainly got a lot going on, so it was great to pick his brain a little bit and get his perspective on things. Read on.

I'm always curious to hear about people's background and history in music, so start off by talking a little bit about how you fell into stuff, early shows you went to, bands that made a particular impression on you.

The first proper concert I went to was AC/DC on their "Stiff Upper Lip" tour. That was well before I even picked up a guitar, I believe. I started playing when I was 10 years old. My grandparents bought me a red Ibanez Gio and a small amplifier. I still have the amplifier and have written most of my music on it. I took lessons for one year in which I learned how to play Green Day songs and power chords, and then I quit guitar for a year. Eventually, I slowly picked it back up on my own and just experimented with the instrument when my parents weren't home. I self-taught myself the instrument for the most part.

In High School, I learned about the "underground" music scene when a kid in my American Government class told me that his band was playing that weekend. For a couple years, I went to see some truly garbage bands play around my small town in New Hampshire. After some time passed, I saw Converge play the University Of New Hampshire and that was when I was first exposed to more kinetic and emotional performance and expression in hardcore/punk/whatever. Those were the highlights of my formative years, for sure.

I guess as a Midwest kid when I think about the East Coast it seems like such a hotbed for amazing hardcore/punk/metal bands and you could just so easily become totally engrossed in the subculture....was that your experience or did you start to get involved in things more gradually?

The town in New Hampshire that I grew up in wasn't nearly as active as Boston or other New England or East Coast areas at the time. So, I wasn't initially engrossed in subculture but I definitely was fascinated by underground music and the more I participated by attending shows or forming bands, the more it took over.

How did Youth Funeral come together....had you known the other guys for a while, played in other bands previously, or was this a new endeavor for everyone to be joining forces?

Youth Funeral started with Raph and I talking about making a chaotic screamo band. He went ahead and started writing with our drummer, Mike, and asked me if I wanted to play with them. I came over to Mike's parents' house one day and we wrote the first songs for “Symptom Of Time”. Travis was at Mike's house and just ended up falling into playing with us. Both Travis and Mike have known each other for years and played in bands together before. Raph and I have been close friends since we were like 5 years old but had never really played music together except for in another band we started right before Youth Funeral called "Ellie." We wrote an EP and played one show, but then Youth Funeral took precedence.

While YF's sound definitely is heavy on the chaos, you guys also seem to give things room to breathe at times (I'm thinking songs like "Weak but Warm" or "A Dream"). How intentional are you in the writing process about mixing things up in terms of tempo and intensity?

I like to write songs that aren't the same as other songs that we've written. I am very conscious of ordering songs on record based on their vibes or tempos or key parts. Youth Funeral, to me, is a project that has the ability to flourish at any speed or intensity, so I want to exercise that ability as much as possible.

I noticed everything you guys have recorded up to this point has been with Will at Dead Air. He's obviously got just a liiiiiiittle bit of a stacked resume, haha. I'm curious if you had worked with him before, and if not, if you were at all nervous going in with him the first time or two.

Will certainly has a reputation as a musician that precedes him and all of us were fans of his music going in. Both Raph and I had recorded with Will before with our other bands, and even those first times, I don't think either of us were necessarily giddy or fan-boying. Will has a comforting aura and the recording experience with him is so smooth and streamlined– I think I'd have to try to be nervous.

The new 7" obviously came out just a few months ago on Twelve Gauge. I've always admired that label because the roster is all over the board sonically and I get the sense that Jihad only puts stuff out that he really likes, regardless of popularity or marketability. That said, how did you guys hook up with him for the new record and how has it been working with him thus far?

The Twelve Gauge roster is interesting, for sure! I believe you hit the nail on the head as far as Jihad only putting out records he likes and it shows in the variety of records he's put out over the years. There's something to be said about that. For our new record, I was told that Jihad was looking for bands to put out, and I thought the Nervous LP and No Sir LP he did recently were cool, so I e-mailed him and the rest was history.

You guys did a little run through the Midwest back in January, talk about tour. A) Touring the Midwest in JANUARY, are you nuts? (-: B) What were the highlights in terms of shows, other bands you got to see, etc.?

Ha! We were definitely nuts to do that. It's actually not the first time I've done a tour like that in the winter. My old band Host toured the same area and Canada in February one time– miserable weather. The Youth Funeral tour was no exception with how cold and unforgiving it was. I believe I was dangerously close to frostbite at times. No fun. Highlights of tour for me were Chicago and Richmond. We got to play with Swan of Tuonela and Caust in Richmond, who both ruled, and I made some cool new friends. Then in Chicago, we played with our pals in Itto and Lord Snow, who are both some of the best bands doing what we're all doing.

In addition to playing in Youth Funeral you also front Death a little bit about the background of that band, how did you come together?

As for Death Injection, Ryan, Bryan, Tyler, and I have been close friends for five or six years now, I believe. We met playing together with our old bands and started hanging out all the time. Now I actually live with Ryan and Tyler, but that’s neither here nor there. Ryan wanted to start a straight edge band that sounded like SSD and Negative Approach and so he just used almost all of the members of his band My Fictions (except Seamus) and myself to start it. Originally, I was supposed to play guitar with Ryan and we were going to find a vocalist. Since we couldn’t think of anyone to do vocals who was straight edge and someone we could get along with in a band, Ryan asked me if I’d like to just do vocals.

How does fronting a band on vocals (DI) differ from doing vocals and guitar (YF), both in terms of performance and with regard to the writing process?

It differs greatly. Obviously, both bands are entirely different beasts musically. In addition, my role/dynamic as a member in either band is different as well. In Death Injection, I only hold a microphone when we play so I have much more freedom to utilize whatever kinetic energy I have and, arguably, I have an obligation to do so.

This is the first and only band I have been just the “vocalist” for. When we started playing shows, I was extremely uncomfortable with performing and I tensed up a lot. My voice was also not very strong or worn-in so—even with our short sets—my voice would blow out every set without fail. Now, I’m much more comfortable with being the “vocalist” of a band. In terms of the writing process, Ryan is the primary songwriter for Death Injection. I do write all of the lyrics, though—that is entirely me.

As seemingly every other band works, he’ll bring in a completed song or ideas for a song, and we will all collaborate and work together on them. As the vocalist, I have had some small inputs and ideas for the music that add some flare to the songs. For instance, I came up with the ending to the song "With Violence" on our LP. Also, some fun trivia, I play the whacky guitar solo at the end of "Broken Chain."

As for Youth Funeral, I write a majority of the music and lyrics for the band with Raph doing the rest. With Youth Funeral, I am channeling a different type of emotion and energy which significantly influences how I perform. The songs tend to be about very personal, often emotional topics. Whereas with Death Injection, while they may still be personal songs, they are mostly confrontational and angry instead of introspective and sad.

I also have been taking more of an outward stance on certain topics with Death Injection than I usually do with music. Most obviously, we are a blatantly straight edge band. In two of our songs ("Be Afraid" and "Worthless") I touch on current issues which, until then, was completely foreign to me with music. In the song "Be Afraid" I wrote words directed at someone who sexually harassed a woman I’m friends with. In the song “Worthless” I wrote words directed at a housemate I had in my college dorm who would joke about rape.

Stylistically the bands are I guess pigeon-holed a little differently for better or for worse; Twelve Gauge seems to fly under the radar a little more whereas Triple B seems to have a little bit more of a hype factor going on; do you find yourself playing to separate crowds with different vibes or is there a decent amount of crossover from one project to another?

Yeah! I think Twelve Gauge doesn’t really have a weight to the name that affects how a band releasing music with them is perceived, so Youth Funeral remained largely unaffected in that manner. For Death Injection, we chose Triple B because they are a label that—as far as hardcore labels go—I don’t think pigeonholes a band too far beyond simply being a “hardcore” band.

For instance, not that this was an option, Deathwish Inc. has a kind of “Deathwish” identity that people automatically assume a band working with them possesses; same thing with Topshelf Records or Run For Cover. With Triple B, we knew that working with Sam would help our music reach other relevant people and that it would provide us with opportunities we couldn’t access on our own at this time all while without causing people to write us off as being a “Triple B” band, since that doesn’t really exist yet.

With all of that being said I will say, I find Death Injection playing to a variety of audiences; I just don’t think it is because of the label(s) we choose to work with. Our music teeters between a punk band and a hardcore band, so we’ll be put on shows where we play to people in varsity jackets or ones to people in spiky jackets. Sometimes we stick out and people don’t react to us, sometimes it's the opposite. Fortunately for us, we receive positive comments from people fairly frequently after we play, even at the shows where everyone stands there looking at us like we’re aliens. We get to play often and people have been responding well to us overall, so I can’t complain.

I haven't read the lyrics to the new Death Injection LP, but just from looking at the name of the record and the song titles there definitely seems to be more than a fair share of vitriol going on. I guess I have one specific question and one broader question on that. For you, what would you say motivates you lyrically?

I’m trying to expand on what motivates me lyrically in general, but for most things in the past, I pull from personal experiences. I know, it’s a broad answer that tells next to nothing, but it’s unfortunately my only answer. I think with the new Youth Funeral 7” and the Death Injection LP, I started to hone in on writing directed at specific people. The Youth Funeral song “I Remember” is about a specific person and a specific day and the Death Injection song “Get Away From Me” is also about a specific person. However, those aren’t the only songs of those types I have written that are released.

More broadly speaking, as someone who has been around a bit, I guess I feel like there has been a shift from when I first got into things from a place where most hardcore and punk bands addressed a lot of social and political topics, and did so with an emphasis on empowerment and change to a place where these days so much seems to focus on being the most depressed, the most angry, the most cvlt or whatever. Not to say that there aren't politically vocal bands today or that there haven't always been bands with a darker tilt lyrically, it just seems like there has been a movement from one direction to the other. I'm curious if you notice this, and if so, what you think is driving it.

I’d say this is an accurate observation and I think this is an important question and dialogue for people to consider. I’ve been confronting it recently myself with my own creative endeavors as to whether or not I am abusing my opportunity to talk about more “important” subjects. Any discussion of art in this manner cannot be finished, of course.

My amateur analysis as to why the movement towards “darker” more “emotional” hardcore and punk bands happened is that somewhere down the line a confessional expression simply became popular. For the sake of conversation let’s say it started with American Nightmare. Obviously, they weren’t the first artists to explore these topics, but they became a very influential group in the hardcore community and I definitely see plenty of bands taking cues from them still today. I think people latched on to bands like American Nightmare because it was different than politically charged bands of before. Therefore, people try to emulate these expressions in ways that are either genuine or a mere attempt to manufacture something that people will like.

Speaking of Deathwish, you work/worked? there. I'm definitely a fan of a lot of what that label puts out, and it seems like they've become sort of the epicenter of a lot of our scene, especially as they're not only putting out their own material but increasingly becoming  the exclusive distributor for a lot of other awesome labels.  I was wondering if you could give us an insider's perspective on the label...I guess I imagine it must be a place that's sort of bubbling with creative energy, but at the same time I wonder if after a while it just feels like any other job; sort of routine and mundane.

I worked for Deathwish Inc. for three years until I decided to leave a couple weeks ago. I started as a mail-order person, then I was the customer service correspondent, and l ended as the first, sole music buyer. It’s funny that you’d mention their expansion into becoming a greater force in terms of distribution since that was a very relevant concern of mine during my last year there.

Basically, my position when I left was the person who purchased almost all of the distributed titles Deathwish Inc. carried (that weren’t exclusive distributors). I watched trends and tried my hardest to make sure we got all of the cool records that people were talking about. For instance, I started bringing in a lot of the Iron Lung Records titles and such. I also simply watched the inventory for things we already had from Matador, Run For Cover, Southern Lord, etc.

Everyone at Deathwish Inc. is involved with underground music outside of working at the record label in some way. People who work there are in bands, photographing bands, booking bands, attending shows, or even releasing records on their own for bands. There is certainly a common thread amongst all of the employees and therefore an element of synergy is present. However, as any job goes, it does eventually become routine and mundane.

Deathwish Inc. is definitely growing constantly and now as an outsider again, I’m interested in seeing where they find themselves in the future.

What's up next for both bands? More touring, more writing, or a little of both?

Death Injection will be touring more in the summer. We’ve talked about flying out to do a west coast tour, so that’s a possibility. We might write another EP for a 7” or something. 

Youth Funeral probably won’t be as active as my other project(s), but we’ll see. I have a lot of new music written, probably enough to squeeze out an LP, but I’m still on the fence about if I like any of it.

Best thing about being an artist operating within hardcore/punk in 2015? Biggest bummer about being an artist operating within hardcore/punk in 2015?

I guess the best thing would be how much support people in the community seem to have for the progression of ideas and also the openness for conversation about those ideas. 

Unfortunately, there are some unproductive methods people employ to express certain views they hold that might do more harm than good. I typically remain neutral in most debates so I’m afraid I don’t have much right to criticize. 

If I were to pick a *personal* favorite thing, it wouldn’t be one that is necessarily a sign of the times: I most enjoy the relationships I have made with some talented and beautiful people thanks to my involvement in this particular music scene. Punk might be dead and I might not really care, but it has been nice to me so I will be nice to it.

Photo credits go to Thom Carney, Sarah Vitale, Angela Owens, and Reid Haithcock. Thank you for documenting our scene.

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