Thursday, April 15, 2010

Smoke or Fire

As music lovers, it’s easy for us to assume that every musician we hear on the radio—or that we see perform at a stadium, or a summer festival, or a club, or even a bowling alley—is a celebrity. Sometimes, it seems like we have been conditioned by our celebrity-obsessed society to attach fame to people we perceive as “important.” Just because we consumed them through some media, we immediately assume that they collect expensive cars, live in incredible houses, waste their money wildly on non-necessities, and don’t have to worry about the “normal” trials and tribulations of American life, like paying bills and determining if that gallon of milk in the fridge is expired.

In reality, though, most musicians—even those on major labels and those that seem to sell the most music—struggle with the life they lead. Many will say they love playing music and couldn’t see themselves doing anything else, but concede that, even when one is “successful,” the lifestyle of a full-time musician is a straining one. It’s hard to keep friends, maintain relationships, or start a family when one is touring eight months out of the year; it’s even harder when the band barely makes enough money to keep itself on the road, let alone maintain some sense of “normalcy” at home. Musicians must be willing to sacrifice a lot to pursue their passions, even in a society that worships them while it, in so many ways, makes it hard for them to succeed.

Joe McMahon is one of these musicians, a man willing to persevere through stress and struggle for what he is convinced is his calling—his music.

After McMahon’s band Smoke or Fire finished touring in support of their second full-length—This Sinking Ship on Fat Wreck Chords, which was released in February of 2007—they were ready to record their follow-up. “We planned to go into the studio a year and a half ago,” he explains, “but then we got offered all these overseas tours that were hard to pass up.” The band toured non-stop until 2009, playing shows in Japan, in Australia and New Zealand, in Europe, and in the United States with NOFX. “At the end of it,” he tells, “everyone was like, ‘We need a break,’ and went their separate ways. We didn’t really get back into communicating as fast as I think we all thought were going to. We were really spent.”

This break was not only necessary because the band was physically and emotionally exhausted; the required rest was the result of some sudden and unforeseen financial problems. When the band went to Europe, they were promised thousands of dollars that they never received. Though money has never been a motivating force behind Smoke or Fire, that money was needed to keep the band touring and recording.

“We ended up coming home at Christmastime with nothing and thousands of dollars in debt,” McMahon explains. “I think we all went home and thought about why we wanted to continue playing music, if we wanted to continue playing music, and also—for most of us, who have spent over ten years playing music—if this isn’t what we’re going to do, what we were going to do.”

“Ultimately,” he continues, “we didn’t know if we were going to get back together and play again.”

Though the band stopped to consider whether they would—or could—continue as Smoke or Fire, McMahon found himself unable to step away from his music. Four days after his return from Smoke or Fire’s tour with NOFX, McMahon found himself preparing to hit the road again; this time, though, he planned to perform solo.

Before he left, he recorded a handful of songs in his friend’s bedroom—ones he had written for Smoke or Fire (and an early incarnation of the band called Jericho) that he could translate from power chords into full acoustic songs. He also recorded a cover of a Johnny Cash song, “Let the Train Blow the Whistle”.

“I was going down to play Harvest of Hope last year,” McMahon says, “and decided brought a bunch of blank CDs. I the plan was to sit there at the merch table and burn these songs onto CDs for five bucks to whoever wanted them so I could put gas in the tank and get to the next town.”

When the three friends with which he was planning to tour were suddenly unable to join him, McMahon had a decision to make—to cancel the shows or shove off on his own. “I was in this position where I had this two-week tour booked down south by myself,” he explains. “The thought of it, at first, was kind of weird; in eleven years of touring, I had never done that. But once I hit the road, it became one of the best experiences I’ve ever been on. It was lot of listening to NPR and staying in thirty-dollar hotels, but it was great.”

Whether it was strumming solo on tour or composing orchestral soundtracks, which McMahon started doing to make ends meet at home, playing music remained at the forefront of McMahon’s mind so, when Fat Wreck Chords asked Smoke or Fire at the end of 2009 if they would pull it together to play some spring festivals, he was ready to hop back on board. The offers to play South by Southwest and the Harvest of Hope Festival in March, along with the thought of playing the Fest in the fall (which was tempting, since they had been unable to play in previous years and, as a band, found it the most fun), were enough to pull the the band from its hibernation; Smoke or Fire was ready to formally reform as a band.

“As soon as we agreed to do that,” McMahon remembers, “Fat was like, ‘Great! You guys need to get us a seven-inch by next week.’ And we were like, ‘Okay…’ So we hauled the troops back into the room to decide what two songs we wanted to record. We knew we’d have to do it very fast and very cheap.”

Maybe it’s for this reason that Prehistoric Knife Fight, the seven-inch that the band recorded in one day and mixed in one hour, sounds so raw and so refreshingly genuine. Recorded by friend Casey Martin (who plays bass for Landmines) at Sound of Music Studios in Richmond, Virginia, Prehistoric Knife Fight feels harsher than This Sinking Ship, but expresses the same terse vitality evident on the band’s previous releases.

On the A-side “Speak Easy”, fuzzy guitars take turns firing off chords in quick, bitter bursts before cementing together into a solid clump. McMahon’s voice is clean, but brash in a desperate and melodic way; it soars above waves of growling, wiggling guitars strummed viciously by both himself and bandmate Jeremy Cochran; beneath this strident surf and an antsy drumbeat, Gwomper’s bass scuttles subtly.

“Modesty”, the single’s B-side, presents a different mood. The song starts with a single guitar chord strummed for maybe too long; it’s the sound of anxiety, the sound of building pressure seconds before something sets it off. When that pressure is suddenly released, the song is flung into its first verse and McMahon sings, “What is it in life that makes us fail? / That it’s impossible to walk away / Business holds people like hostages, / locked away is boardrooms and offices.” Even when the song starts to simmer and strips itself down to the delicate pings of a ride cymbal; strokes of lush, greasy guitar; and light blips of bass, one can’t help but suspect that, again, the bubbles are only building up. The song bursts during the bridge into a syncopated breakdown that sets up a climactic final chorus.

Musically and lyrically, “Modesty” feels like a song that McMahon had to get off of his chest. “It’s a song I wrote about seven years ago on an acoustic guitar,” he says. “It’s about my dad, who worked at a job he hated for twenty-five years. He quit one day, just walked out, and I wrote that song that day. For this seven-inch, we figured we’d do one song that’d make it onto the full length [‘Speak Easy’] and another song that’s always been there but we’ve never made into a full band song, so we sat down and made ‘Modesty’ into a full band song.”

As Smoke or Fire began its rapid reconstruction, people started to take notice of the songs McMahon distributed during his solo tour, including Neil Shulman of Anchorless Records. “I never intended to release those songs ever,” McMahon says, “but Neil approached me and was really into releasing it. I was really hesitant at first because I recorded it so quick. But, at the same time, he was like, ‘Dude, it’s great! You recorded it drunk in your friend’s bedroom!’”

“I can’t remember if it was Neil or me that said it,” McMahon continues, “but we decided it’d be really cool to do it as a split, to get another band to do acoustic versions of their songs. That made me way more on board.” When Brendan Kelly of the Lawrence Arms expressed interest in such a project, McMahon conceded to Shulman’s request. His six songs make up the second half of Wasted Potential, the split with Kelly released by Anchorless and Red Scare Industries on March 13th of 2010, the same day that Fat Wreck Chords released Prehistoric Knife Fight.

With two records recently released (and a third with Smoke or Fire ready to record), it seems like McMahon may be busier now more than ever. It doesn’t mean he’s rich, and it doesn’t make him any sort of celebrity; it only means that he has to work a lot harder. “I think we’re back in this with absolutely any expectations of making it big or making money doing it,” he says. “We’re just focused on doing it because it’s fun and because we love it.”

Whether or not we, as listeners, attach the words “Rock Star” or “Celebrity” to Smoke or Fire, what matters to McMahon (and Cochran, and Gwomper for that matter) is that music is being made—that, despite the stresses and struggles, despite the unforeseen financial problems, these guys pursue their passions.

Because that’s what a passion is—something a person can’t help but pursue even when it drags him or her through hell.

McMahon interviewed and recorded these songs in his basement on a March evening mere days before the releases of Prehistoric Knife Fight and Wasted Potential. Smoke or Fire would leave for the Harvest of Hope Festival and South by Southwest in less than a week.

It was somewhat confusing at first when McMahon plugged his acoustic guitar into an amp, since most bands don't use amps for these over-the-phone recording sessions. It soon became clear why he plugged in, though; his huge, soaring voice would have, otherwise, drowned out the guitar. It took some time for me to realize that Smoke or Fire's albums don't (and maybe never could) do the weight and power of his voice justice.

"What Separates Us All" appears on Smoke or Fire's 2007 record titled This Sinking Ship. "Modesty" appears on Smoke or Fire's 2010 single Prehistoric Knife Fight. "Clean Sheets" is a Descendents cover; the song originally appeared on the 1987 album ALL.

Visit the band's MySpace for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.