Friday, May 28, 2010

Captain, We're Sinking

When Captain, We’re Sinking began as a band, they set their sights on a couple of targets that, if attained, would make this punk-rock project of theirs fulfilling. “I don’t know if you guys remember this,” says Leo Vergnetti, singer and guitarist, to the rest of his band, “but the first goals that we had when we started the band were to make one CD that we weren’t that ashamed to show our families, and to play one show that had ten kids there who knew the lyrics and would sing along.”

“And get a merch box,” bassist Zack Charette interrupts laughing, “and we got that.”

To put another way, Captain, We’re Sinking has set out to play music that both they and other people can appreciate. These seem like modest, if not typical, goals; a band shouldn’t be a band, it seems, if these two requirements aren’t realized, right? In reality, though, these are the goals of every fledgling band, and an indicator that the band has confidence and talent, two things needed play music professionally.

Of course, any touring band also needs a merch box (and merch to put in it), but the majority of musicians can never quite make it to this point—that is, to the point when they are willing to pour their own money into a musical project that may never turn a profit (or the point when the band becomes profitable enough to afford merch). Even Charette’s interjection suggests that Captain, We’re Sinking is a band ready to take that next step.

It’s only been sixty-eight hours since Kind of Like Records officially released Captain, We’re Sinking’s four-song seven-inch It’s a Trap! and sixty-six hours since they played at 16 Taps in Wilmington, NC at Rad Fest. At Charette’s parents’ house, the band sits in a circle around a speaker-phone as one of their first “official” interviews. They laugh at each other’s answers (as well as their own) and playfully make fun of one another. They seem aware of the big weekend they’ve just had, if not yet aware of what it means for the band.

For example, when asked about what it’s like to be an up-and-coming band transitioning from the various Pennsylvania scenes to which they belong towards something bigger, singer and guitarist Bobby Barnett responds, “Is that what we are?” Charette answers, “I guess,” and they all laugh at themselves as they argue about who is best-qualified to field this question.

This kind of camaraderie can only come from years of playing music together. Before Captain, We’re Sinking, Barnett and Vergnetti played together in a Scranton ska band called Kos Mos with Barnett’s brother Greg (now a member of the Menzingers) and Adam McIlwee (currently one of the singers and songwriters in Tigers Jaw). “We all played in ska bands, actually,” Barnett admits, “but decided we didn’t really want to play ska anymore; we wanted to start playing in a faster punk band.”

The only problem was that neither Barnett nor Vergnetti were the strong singers that they wanted to be. In order to train their voices, they needed a place to practice. “We would meet down at a laundry mat and bring acoustic guitars with us because it was the only place we could go to sing and play,” Barnett explains. “We couldn’t really sing in Scranton because we’d get noise complaints. We’d put all of our clothes in the washer and dryer so we had to be there, and it’d be real late at night so there was only one other person there. We’d meet up there throughout the year, and that’s how we learned to sing and play songs together.”

It didn’t take the band too long to go from playing Bad Religion and Bouncing Souls covers at the arcade in Barnett’s hometown to releasing The Animals Are Out, an ambitiously self-produced full-length. “Somehow,” Vergnetti tells, “we got a little carried away with it and set a release date and show. It got to the point where, the night before, we were mixing the songs and, the next day, we had all our friends come over with their computers and had a CD burning party. And we printed our covers at Staples.” Though this seems like a chaotic way to release a record, the low-fi feriocity of The Animals Are Out served as an apt introduction to Captain, We’re Sinking and caught the attention of the Pennsylvania-based Lock and Key Collective, who decided to release the record.

It’s at this point, of course, that most musicians flounder. They’ve released some of their songs, sure—and this is a victory worth celebrating—but find themselves desperately fighting to promote their product. This too often comes in the form of touring, playing shows to ten-person audiences plagued with apathy, in towns too far away, and for the sort of compensation that won’t even cover a meal for every band member. It’s at this point where that confidence, talent, and merch box can make a band—and the lack thereof can break it.

This is where Captain, We’re Sinking was following the rigorous release of The Animals Are Out. “Two years ago,” Barnett remembers, “we went on a quick run of dates up to Vermont. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. Our van got a flat tire and broke down; we were stuck overnight in upstate-New York until six in the morning sitting on the side of the road. We couldn’t shut off the van or else it would break down, and if it idled too long, it would shut down.”

“A garbage truck came and jumped us,” Vergnetti adds.

“Didn’t we almost get killed by a murderer?” Charette asks.

“Oh yeah,” Barnett remembers, “this guy who was a total creep show wanted to pick us up. I was all for it, but I guess I was kind of dumb.

“Then we got to Vermont” he continues, “and I got insanely sick—like just throwing up and dizzy. Our old drummer Mike was just so sick of everything at that point. He’s still our good friend but, at that time, I wanted to kill him because he brought three cases of beer and a bottle of whiskey and got beyond drunk. He was so happy to finally get there that he just binged by himself in the corner of the hotel room that we were staying at. And I’m throwing up. And everyone else is just angry at each other.”

The entire band laughs in the background at Barnett’s remembrance, but it clearly wasn’t funny at the time. “When we were driving back,” Barnett continues, “I decided that I was going to try to do something different, so I moved to New York and started working at a law firm in Manhattan to get my head straight. And that’s when we started writing the songs for It’s a Trap! It was kind of a pretty down time.”

Though the mood of the music on It’s a Trap! seems energetic and aggressive at first listen, the tone of the lyrics transforms the songs into something darker and more desperate. The guitars during the intro of “Swing Your Kami Sword”, for example, meander and reel recklessly like cars speeding through a neighborhood; a lead slices in and out of this thick caravan of chords until the first verse, when these guitars splash against Vergnetti’s coarse vocals. They thicken later, curdle into sharp shards that slice through verses and choruses and a bridge until they build up to a climax conclusion, when Vergnetti screams, “They’ll cut you down / they’ll chew you up / they’ll spit you out / forget your name and they’ll cut you.”

“We wrote The Animals Are Out when we were in high school,” Vergnetti explains, “when everything was a lot simpler and smaller and made a lot more sense. While we were writing It’s a Trap!, a lot of things were in the air. Both songs that I wrote, ‘Kami Sword’ and ‘It’s a Trap!’, are about that instability feeling, this unknown.”

Barnett took a different approach to the two songs her wrote for the record, but the results are no less dreary. After writing his share of The Animals Are Out, Barnett felt tapped out of content. “I got really down,” he says, “and mad that I couldn’t write a really original thought anymore. So I started making up characters and stories in my head, kind of like writing short stories. I was listening to a lot of the Mountain Goats, and they do a lot of that.”

“Crushed by Milwaukee’s Best”, one of Barnett’s short story songs, concludes with the image of a young man who is considering the thought of leaping off of a building, rationalizing that, “If Jesus walked on water, then I can walk on air.” In the wind of those same shards of chord, above the dry cracks of a snare drum and alarm-like clangs of ride cymbal, Barnett and Vergnetti conclude this man’s story, together singing, “But as he falls, he hears his mother cry / He looks at her, then he dies.” As Vergnetti’s voice rises from the body of this character, the rest of the song quickly resurrects itself and careens into a final chorus.

Though it’s only four songs long, It’s a Trap! displays a more mature side of the band and features a more sophisticated kind of songwriting. And, though the record was written during a time of distress and doubt, the band surfaced on the other end of the experience even stronger than, though this is a thought that may make Barnett, Vergnetti, and Charette laugh modestly.

Drummer Bill Orender sees things differently, though. He’s only been a part of Captain, We’re Sinking since October, having joined the band after they wrote and recorded It’s a Trap!, but senses a momentum that his band mates may not.

“My third show with these guys was the Fest,” he explains. “There are a lot of things that surprise us when we play shows away from home. Like we went to Rad Fest this time around, and, as we were setting up, I was nervous as hell because I look up and there’s a crowd thick to the back door watching us, waiting for us to play. We had people coming up to us before and after we played saying that they came down to Rad Fest to see us, from Florida and around North Carolina.

“It’s stuff like that that makes me feel like we are on the rise,” Orender concludes. “People are recognizing and loving our songs.”

It seems like Captain, We’re Sinking has fulfilled their goals; they’ve released two records of which they can be proud—a full-length and an EP—and they’ve played to not ten people, but rooms full of fans that shout along, impassioned, to their songs. Thought it’s been a battle, Captain, We’re Sinking is slipping into the realm of recognition whether they know it or not.

It’s a good thing they have that merch box; they’ll need it.

After their weekend at Rad Fest, Captain, We're Sinking made their way back to Pennsylvania to play a show in Scranton. Before the show, the set up camp at Charette's parents' house where they conducted their interview and record their three songs. Though there were technical difficulties--the handset ran out of batteries a few times and Charette knocked the the speaker-phone off the table once--the laughing heard before and after these songs are a reflection of the fun guys that make up Captain, We're Sinking.

"Crushed by Milwuakee's Best" appears on Captain, We're Sinking's 2010 record titled It's a Trap! "Foster Brothers" will appear on yet-to-be announced split. "Broom People" is a Mountain Goats' cover; the song originally appeared on the 2005 album The Sunset Tree.

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.