Self-awareness is usually an excellent trait, but it’s proven to be the opposite for pop-punk. Indeed, self-referencing has proven to be nothing but an embarrassment for the genre. Mostly, it’s resulted in terrible party rock, the mind-numbing introduction of one-chord breakdowns (thanks, Wonder Years), and awful T-shirts bearing self-righteous slogans, such as “DEFEND POP-PUNK!” and “POP-PUNK, NOT PILLS!” Yeah, facepalm.
On the flipside, there’s been a very real, and very good, backlash to pop-punk’s more embarrassing contemporaries: Means Jeans, for one, released the stupidest (and best) LP of the year in On Mars. Olympia’s RVIVR and the roster of their native Rumbletowne records have brought heavily politicized sensibilities to the fray. And Teenage Bottlerocket, who released the punknews.org-approved Freak Out last month, aren’t forgetting that the genre, at its most effective, is fast, simple and funny.
“The Unlovables, the Twentybelows, Riff Randalls — I love that stuff,” says Ray Carlisle, Teenage Bottlerocket’s singer-guitarist. “When pop-punk’s done right, it’s my favourite type of music. But when it’s done wrong, it’s the worst type of music.”
Carlisle doesn’t take my invitation to shit-talk lesser acts. (Classy move, on his part.) But he does give insight on what he believes is a successful pop-punk formula: “It’s the fun in the songs. We aim to make that shitty drive to work better. Like Chixdiggit, I want music to put a smile on a face whenever I put it on.”
So much so, in fact, that Carlisle uses the word “fun” no less than 22 times in our conversation. That Chixdiggit reference isn’t a mistake either — Carlisle lists them as one of his all-time favourite bands. It’s evident that he’s excited to return to Calgary — he’s looking forward to lacing up the skates, like he did last time he was in town, playing hockey with NOFX’s Eric Melvin. (“We caught some ice time with a few local punks,” he says. “Dude always brings his hockey gear with him on tour.”) He’s a giant Fubar fan, and promises to hunt Deaner down in an attempt to buy him a Pilsner. And he’s excited to try out Freak Out’s barely tested songs on a live audience, along with longtime friends — and fellow Orgcore faves — The Dopamines.
“We’ve been put in the same hole as Ramones-core, and I can see why,” adds Carlisle. “We have 1-4-5 songs and downstrokes, like the Ramones. But [with Freak Out], we’ve learned a lot — Kody [Templeman, guitarist] and I are more comfortable doing harmonies. Miguel [Chen] is more comfortable on the bass. Everything fell into place on the album — a lot of people want to accuse us of writing the same record, but we have the most fun writing these songs.”
It shows. Freak Out is nothing if not a balls-out fun record: “Cruising For Chicks” has a tongue-in-cheek teenage shithead appeal, to the tune of classic American pop-punk (think Descendents in a cafeteria food-fight with Screeching Weasel). “Punk House of Horror” has the band poking fun at dog-filled, Crass-postered and meth-drenched, well, punk houses. “Necrocomicon,” on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like: A dweeb freakout for glue-sniffing obsessives.
It’s all part of Teenage Bottlerocket’s teenage suburban mythology: Their universe is a rock ’n’ roll high school populated by clean-cut pogo punks and meathead KISS fans.
“We have songs about Top Gun, or First Blood Part 2, and that’s because we’ve always found American culture hilarious,” says Carlisle. “We’ve never taken ourselves that seriously. But ‘Freak Out’ is about my ex-wife, well, freaking out on me. ‘Done With Love’ is about Cody’s relationship coming to an end. Yeah, we have songs about being bigger than KISS, but we have serious songs, too.”
Which is part of Teenage Bottlerocket’s charm — there’s a certain sincerity to their music, however loboto it might be. Which might be hard to believe, considering their lead single is “Headbanger,” a cautionary anti-concussion song written for metalheads. Still, Carlisle says, injuries are no joke.
“We were drunk and fighting over food one tour,” he recalls, “And Brandon [Carlisle, drummer] broke his hand over a table mid-tour. It was funny at the time, but we were devastated when we sobered up the next day. We had our tour [jeopardized] over a slice of pizza!”
There’s a reason they call ’em pizza punks.