There’s nothing straight forward about the story behind Seattle’s Dead Bars. Formed by two New Jersey natives living in Seattle, by way of semi-successful gigging bands and plenty of missed opportunities, it’s a story that breathes life into the group’s debut album, ‘Dream Gig’.
It’s also a story of hard-luck, anxiety and mundane daily challenges, but one brimming with optimism and a burning desire to follow your dreams. For some, Dead Bars are a band to get drunk and commiserate to, for others they are a band that bursts with life-affirming optimism. It’s a tricky trade-off but one that Dead Bars manage deftly:
“Dead Bars is really about hope,” says vocalist John Maiello. “It’s kind of crazy as a lot of people might say ‘Oh, these songs are about getting fucked up or life sucks and I’m really depressed’ – but how can you want something better if you don’t experience some of that pain?”
Of course, this pain is often masked by humour; the outstanding ‘Tear Shaped Bruise’ charts a story of heartbreak by going to a punk rock show at a whisky bar, possessing a fuck-it-all dust-yourself-off optimism, despite the fact it’s a pretty shitty situation.
Yet what makes these stories so successful is the life experience Dead Bars bring to the table. ‘Dream Gig’ is not an album young pups starting out could make. The stories come born from world-weary experience, yet still hold their head high with a stoic smile.
A case in point would be the title track, ‘Dream Gig’. “I’m an ageing rocker trying to make it in this world,” the gravelly-toned Maiello blasts, acknowledging the fact that Maiello himself is nearly 30, while other founding member C.J. Frederick is in his mid-30s. “It started off as a joke – and I’m gonna put C.J. on the spot – but the whole ageing rocker lyric, I lifted that 100% off his Tinder profile,” laughs Maiello. “It’s from when we were both single a few years ago, but I mean, that line is amazing.”
Frederick affords himself a laugh too, before admitting the killer line was indeed off his Tinder bio. “The thing is, yeah it’s jokey, but with the title, people can grab onto it and it can mean something to lots of different people. I think that’s why it’s attractive,” says Maiello. “’Dream Gig’ became far more conceptual than what we actually planned,” says Frederick. “I think we actually used it to inspire us.”
While the idea of a ‘Dream Gig’ may have served as an inspiration when it comes to writing and recording, both Frederick and Maiello stress that their Dream Gig could be in front of 1 person or 10,000 people – audience size simply doesn’t matter – provided they have a great time. This message of leaving it all on stage even makes it through to the group’s promo artwork, tying the album’s concept together perfectly.
“So we have this one shot, and we’re playing on stage and there’s this one person with curly hair watching us. That’s our friend Neil,” says Maiello. “He’s probably only missed 10 Seattle shows we’ve played – and we’ve played a lot of Seattle shows. The point of that that photo and ‘Dream Gig’ is that there could be only 1 person at that show, and if they believe in us and we believe in them, then we’ve done something right. That’s the dream gig.”
This grounded attitude has carried Dead Bars through a handful of singles, EPs and split releases prior to their release of ‘Dream Gig’. But, like all the best bands, there’s an impish charm to the story of how they hooked up with punk rock heavyweights No Idea, as C.J. explains.
“Back in August 2013, we had recorded a bunch of songs in our practice space, and that night I went out and partied really hard. I texted some of my friends in Florida to say ‘hey, I just made this recording, I think No Idea should hear it.’ So I got Var [Thelin’s] number and sent him a text message and an email. I had a bit of history with him as my previous band Big Eyes was distributed through No Idea and we toured a lot, so I’d some connections in Florida.
“So I sent him the demos and I woke up at like 3pm the next day and I had this text message from Var that just said: ‘Howdy, it’s Var, it’s on’. But I was so fucked up I was like ‘what does this all mean – is he putting out our record?’
“I messaged back something like ‘cool. What?’ Then I heard nothing from him for two more weeks. Finally, he was like, ‘I like these recordings, what do you want to do with them?’ and those recordings became our first EP and our split EP with Sunshine State.”
Since then, alongside the album, the group squirrelled themselves away, working on ‘Dream Gig’ as well as numerous singles, which have found themselves homes on labels such as Japan’s Eager Beaver Records and the UK’s own All In Vinyl.
Alongside these diversions, one of the reasons the album took so long was the lack of label input – something of a blessing and a curse, explain the duo, which led to constant tinkering with the sound as the band got trapped in a headspace of wanting to make the best album possible:
“We’ve been working on ‘Dream Gig’ for a really long time,” says Frederick. “I think partly through lack of touring; it’s not that we don’t tour, but we don’t really hit the road as hard as other bands do. So we spent more time in the practice space doing various recording sessions and we got kind of obsessed with it.
“Then, when we finally finished it about a year ago, we sent it to Var and even though it wasn’t finished he was like ‘I have some pretty strong opinions about this record’. I was like ‘oh shit, what does that mean’.
“So we sort of ended up with two versions of this record; there’s the LP – that has 8 songs, but it comes with 2 downloads – the LP and the director’s cut version, that has a little extra material on it – maybe like an additional 10 minutes.”
Another reason given for the slow process is the isolation felt by the group, holed up in the Pacific North West and away from the current punk hotbeds found in the likes of Philadelphia and, somewhat ironically, New Jersey:
“I think, because we live out here in Seattle, and because it’s physically and culturally removed from No Idea Records and the global punk scene – it’s like we have our own thing here,” considers Maiello. “We were just hibernating up here working on songs. And it was a good and bad thing,”
“I think it’s the isolation of the North West,” says Frederick. “We don’t get a lot of bands like us coming through. I book a lot of shows, but I book a lot of bands that Dead Bars doesn’t have a lot in common with.
“I’m super involved with the music community at large, but I don’t even tell a lot of people that I play in a band called Dead Bars, because I don’t think they’ll get it or really care. But, to loop it back around, we got really stuck in our heads working on this album and it took three or four times longer than it should have in which to finish it.”
They may protest – and it may have been a long time coming – but ‘Dream Gig’ is more than worth the wait.
‘Dream Gig’ by Dead Bars is out now on No Idea Records.
Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair)