I picked up American Heartbreak's "Postcards From Hell" in Japan and it kicked my ass in at least 10 different ways that I could count. It's just straight forward rock 'n' roll about life's little (and big) frustrations that scratches all the right itches. I talked to Erik and Mike one afternoon in June. Unfortunately, my recorder's batteries were apparently dying as Erik and I finished up and by the time Mike and I started chatting, they had passed on. Such is life.
So I take it you guys are big Manic Street Preachers fans?
Erik: How could you tell? We definitely are. I was actually introduced to the band when the "Generation Terrorists" album first came out. Our singer was a super fan of that band. We all really like them, especially the early stuff.
Like "Suicide Alley," the "New Art Riot" EP.
Erik: Oh yeah. The "Stay Beautiful" EP.
Import or domestic?
Erik: I'm not sure I know the difference.
The domestic has "Motown Junk" on it and the import only has three songs.
Erik: The one I've got has "Motown Junk," "Sorrow 16," "R.P. McMurphy" and "Star Lover."
That's the domestic one. It's a great EP. I actually had the chance to interview Richey right after "Gold Against The Soul" came out. We talked about comic books for about half an hour.
Erik: I always found him to be a pretty intriguing guy. Obviously he was really intelligent. It always seemed to me that some of the more artistic, intelligent types tend to have these mental or emotional problems. I think that was the case with dear Mr. James. I don't know if you were aware, but we actually have a song called "Richey James."
That's why I was asking about it. You made references to the 17 stitches in the lyrics. It's actually funny because in the last issue of the zine, one of the writers wrote about the Manics and argues that "This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours" and "Everything Must Go" are better than the older stuff. At any rate, you seem to have a lot of the same musical touchpoints that the Manics did - the New York Dolls, late 70s punk.
Erik: In a lot of ways, yeah. I think in particular, Lance, our singer, has taken a lot of lyrical inspiration from those guys. Taking more chances, using larger words and couplets and phrasings the way that Richey and Nicky wrote. But yeah, it does all relate back to that attitude of 70s New York punk. I guess that's the main thing that we would have in common with those guys, as well as the obvious glam influences.
Hence the Dolls cover. What grabbed me about "Postcards from Hell" when I first heard it was the sense of history - it sounds like it starts off with the Stooges and Ron Asheton's guitar sound, moves through the Sex Pistols and then winds up in 80s hard rock.
Erik: Yeah, pretty much. We're all old school rockers from way back. The beauty of American Heartbreak is that we all grew up with the exact same reference points in rock 'n' roll. We're all fans of all genres of rock, which is why we draw influences from glam and punk and metal even. I was in a metal band in the 80s called Mordred, Mike was actually the bass player in the last lineup of Exodus, and then later on, Billy and Mike did a band called Mind Zone which started around the time bands like Pantera were breaking. It was a real hardcore, thrash thing. We definitely draw from all over the place, and it's great to be in a band where someone can start chunking out a UFO riff and everyone chimes right in, or a Dead Boys riff or a Generation X riff or whatever. We all have such a vast frame of reference that it really just becomes a melting pot and I think that's how our writing style has developed. I think it's something to be proud of, definitely.
Now you're all a little older, like early 30s and late 20s, right?
Erik: You nailed it.
You just don't really hear this kind of music coming from younger people - their references are hip hop/metal fusions and forbidden beat punk like 1982-era Bad Religion.
Erik: For us, it's always been not so much what you say as how you say it. Rock 'n' roll has been written. Those riffs are out there and it's really hard to put a totally new spin on rock 'n' roll and we're definitely not out to reinvent anything. I think what we're all about is not denying our influences, using them to our advantage, not trying to be pretentious and create any new sounds - you'll never hear us with a DJ in the band - and go along with what we do. We've got pretty high standards. We all think that the song comes first so that's always been the main goal of the band.
So how did American Heartbreak start?
Erik: I guess the story goes back to when Billy Rowe and I met around 1976, 1977. We were junior high kids who bought our first instruments together and started banging out cover songs in the garage. Towards high school, we went our separate ways and Billy wound up forming a band called Jetboy which was one of the main L.A. glam bands in that mid-80s glam resurgence. I saw Guns 'N' Roses open for Jetboy, I saw Poison open for Jetboy. Unfortunately, through two major label deals, that band kind of got passed over and the glory went to a lot of bands that came up under Jetboy, but Billy spent a lot of years doing that and living in L.A. Mike Butler is a Florida native and moved out here with a band called Stevie Stiletto which was kind of a punk rock band and then he wound up auditioning for Exodus and getting a gig. He did a record with them and got to tour the world and got some good rewards out of that before that band ended. Lance is our youngest and he actually moved out here from Boston. I got to know him through Mike and Mike knew him from being around the music scene. Lance had talked about wanting to be a singer and starting something knew, and they seemed to have a common goal in mind. As I said before, Mike and Billy had been working in a metal band called Mind Zone and that band was coming to an end. Billy was right there with what they wanted to do and so they gave me a call and said they needed a drummer. I wasn't really doing too much musically at the moment and from day 1, I think we all felt the spark and felt we had something good going. That was in late 1996, so we're coming up on our big 4 year anniversary here.
You realize that's longer than most marriages last?
Erik: Oh yeah.
So you've all been in music for a long time. How did you settle on this particular sound?
Erik: Personally, this is the band I've wanted to be in my whole life, as far as the songwriting and the people that I'm working with. Everyone's really grounded and really fun. They're really good friends and we're pretty tight knit in that way. It's tough to say. Having done metal and seen all these different fads coming through - and I don't think anyone in the band is particularly enamored of the new rock sound: the Korns, the Creeds, whoever you have out there - we just thought we would bite back with what we wanted to hear. Honestly, one band that came up as a reference point that was still happening when we formed that we were all really into but no one in America seemed to have gotten hip to was the Wild Hearts. All it took was one guy mentioning them and everybody's eyes lit up and we said that was pretty much the direction we wanted to go. We felt they were taking all the styles of rock 'n' roll that had ever been created and were just going for the good songs. Call it metal, call it glam, call it punk, call it what you will - it has to be a good rock 'n' roll song.
So it sounds like it's more important to you to write songs in 4/4 with a couple of Les Pauls behind them than be part of a particular musical genre or style.
Erik: Absolutely. I think we've got a lot of ground to cover yet, a lot of chances to take, we've been doing a lot of writing recently and I'm really pleased with some of the directions we're going in. We're taking a few more chances, toying with time signatures and tempos, and I think that can only help us grow, but it definitely has to catch your ear. You have to listen to it once and be singing along the second time.
You've been around since 1996; why did it take so long to get a full-length out?
Erik: Yeah, the official release date was the end of January this year. That album was actually done for a year when it was released. The first EP we did on our own and a guy from a record label in Texas was interested in releasing it. We figured we were a baby band and it was an opportunity to get something out and we did. The production was pretty bad, it was a very low budget thing, as I said, we did it on our own, but it was a good way to get something out. From there the writing style really started to gel and we really started flowing with material and ideas, becoming a band and we decided we had enough material to do our next record, so we actually went up to Seattle and financed "Postcards From Hell" on our own in January of 1999. We did all the recording on our own budget and got it mastered on our own and started shopping it in demo form, burning CDs and sending it around. Coldfront Records listened to it and they were adamantly not looking for anyone to sign because they had too much on their plate at the time and within a day or two, they were calling us and saying "We have to put this record out. Don't let anyone else put this record out." So that's how this came about. We spent that year shopping it around to the majors and the independents and anyone we could, and Coldfront was the first to step up and show a real interest and say, "We'll do this."
So what do you want out of this? You talked about shopping for deals; is it a matter of trying to get the record on Billboard, is it recording music? What keeps you doing this?
Erik: Well, we've all been doing it so long that it's a standing joke within the band that it's pretty much all we know how to do. I would be lying if I said we were just in this for the fun and the punk credibility and we didn't care if we make any money. Hell no. We would love to sell millions of records and we would love to make money and we would love to be successful at what we love to do. We're proud of it and we stand by it. We shy away from the term sellout because we've all been doing this for a long time and we're all pretty jaded. We've all seen a bit of the inner workings of the industry, especially on the major side. It seems to be pretty bullshit and pretty corrupt. A lot of great bands wind up getting used and breaking up or having their musical wells tapped dry by some big corporate entity that really doesn't give a shit about them, so we're leery of that. We're a little jaded toward that, but we would love to make records with good distribution so that we can get the stuff out for everyone to hear and we really don't care how we go about doing it. Obviously, we're prepared to do it on our own, but with a band's budget versus a label's budget, it's more our intention to find a deal that's going to help us propel this thing to the next level.
It wasn't hard to tell that you're jaded; it seems like pretty much about everyone and everything. I mean, "Let's drink to the assholes/ Let's drink to you." This record is pretty fucking negative. Everything seems like a middle finger, it seems like it's disgusted with everything.
Erik: Yes. This is a recurring point and it's actually something we're trying to shy away from a little bit. The negativity is a very real thing. Being jaded, having spent years doing this and feeling the frustrations and the wheels spinning, it's hard not to get a little jaded and I think that's pretty much where the attitude and negativity come from. I think in terms of the lyrical content, it is kind of a punk rock middle finger to the world. I think it's also a way of venting. If you have negative feelings about something, whether it's your bandmates, your wife, your job, whatever it happens to be, I think it's better to write a song that says "Fuck you," than actually act out the fuck you. We definitely pour a lot of that into the songwriting and the negativity has been a factor. We don't want to particularly be known as a band that writes all negative material but at the same time, it's a real part of who we are.
Yet at the same time, the music seems uplifting, making it more cathartic.
Erik: I guess you could almost view that as a contrast between the riffs that really do drive you and bring you up, and the lyrical content which can be a little negative. It definitely makes you think.
Yeah, especially "Beautiful me, pitiful you/ You like hell to me/ Beauty to me is ugly to you/ I feel like shit today." It seems simple on the surface, but it points to this idea that a lot of bands have had that what you like will probably not be what someone else likes and vice versa.
Erik: Absolutely. I think Lance's lyrics have really come a long way from when we first started. I'm really proud of the work he did on a lot of the lyrics on "Postcards From Hell." He's not scared to try and get beneath the surface. He wants to draw you a lyrical picture and let you come to your own conclusions about it but making it really clear how he feels.
Based on the lyrics and music, it seems like American Heartbreak might be a band that sits around drinking at night, probably getting more depressed and more pissed as the night drags on.
Erik: Without taking away any of the mystique, there's some drinking done in the band. We've all gotten a little older and a little more grounded. I think some of the teenage ängst that may come through in the lyrics is more of a vent as opposed to living it out in reality. We don't live negative lives and spend every night drinking, but at the same time, the music comes from the guy and it's fed by what we feel. There's a balance there.
Lately it seems like the music I've been listening to is typically made by people who are a bit older and have had more time to get kicked around by life. It's usually made by people who have some experience behind the songs.
Erik: Yeah, a lot of the music I like comes from older bands or bands that have been around and paid dues for a little while. It seems like a lot of bands that tend to be one hit wonders are really shallow to me, a lot of these MTV Total Request Live bands, bands that just got together and became major label slaves right away and are writing what they're told to write. I don't think there's a whole lot of heart in it. Not that these bands are necessarily to blame, the Third Eye Blinds or what have you, because they really are being directed by a major label and they're young so who's to say? If I was given a major deal when I was, 21 years old, I don't think I would have been the one to turn it down. At the same time, an extra 10 years gives you a certain perspective. Experience from those 10 years of playing music gives you perspective to see that there's a little more to it than a tour bus.
It seems to me that a lot of younger bands seem kind of cocksure about it; they're so impressed with their own credibility that they won't admit to even thinking about it.
Erik: Well, like I said, Billy Rowe and I have been friends for almost 25 years and I watched him sign to Elektra Records at age 18. I was really proud to see my friends achieving that kind of success, but after signing to Elektra, they got dicked around for the better part of two years and their album sat on a shelf until they were eventually dropped because their A&R guy was no longer with the label and then luckily for them, Michael Goldstone was over at MCA and bought the album from Elektra and was able to get that out on MCA. So I've actually seen Billy have two different major label deals by the time he was 21 years old and it really showed me a lot about the way things worked within the industry. Besides feeling the pride for him and being happy to see Jetboy hitting the road and getting some record sales and moderate success, it was still enough for me to see how screwed the industry can be and how one person's decision to put your master tapes up on a shelf for a few years can really humiliate and let the air out of the sails of a band.
Do you think being older and having these experiences gives the songs a little more honesty?
Erik: I really do think the songs come from the heart. There's no pretension there. Songs that we write are what we know. I don't think we're attempting to come across as anything we're not or anything that we want people to think we are. It's doing what we do, what we feel we do best, and letting the music do the talking.
So what do you consider success?
Erik: Bottom line would be when the band is able to support itself financially, when we don't have to have day jobs in order to pay studio rent, write songs, play shows or make records. It would be nice if we were able to rehearse in the daytime instead of after working all day. We're still a baby band on a lot of those levels and I would like to see us get to the point where the band becomes our job. I think it would move that much further and faster if we had that as our sole commitment and all our energy and motivation and drive was going into it. Mike is a small business owner, Lance is a restaurant manager. We've all got day gigs and I would love nothing more than to be able to say, when someone asks what I do for a living, "I'm in a rock band." I think success is on many levels. I think the aspirations of having platinum sales and being on the cover of this magazine and all that, I don't think I was ever really about that. Maybe as a teenager, with a little bit of grandiosity in there, but success to me, at this point, would be to be financially solvent from the band and comfortable and happy doing what we do.