Smoke or Fire Joe McMahon The Speakeasy

"I don't care what anyone's views are, as long as they're not hurting anyone else," says Smoke or Fire's Joe McMahon.


The Inertia

TheInertia.com recently caught up with Joe McMahon, singer and guitarist for Richmond, Virginia’s Smoke or Fire to get the skinny on their new album (The Speakeasy), what it’s like to work for Fat Mike, and how it feels to wake up on a crashing airplane. Pretty interesting stuff.

Also, the first three readers to correctly answer the following bit of Smoke or Fire trivia wins a copy of The Speakeasy courtesy of Fat Wreck Chords. Here goes: What are two other terms for the word speakeasy? Email your answers here. Have at it.

Your latest album, The Speakeasy, is a great mix between the sounds of the band’s previous two full-lengths. There’s grit and plenty of acoustic guitar like there was on Above The City, and there’s also plenty of melodic punk overtures that were captured in This Sinking Ship. Tell me a little about the songwriting process for this record.

When we wrote This Sinking Ship, we had pretty much been on the road constantly since the previous album had been released, and when we weren’t on tour, Jeremy [Cochran, bassist] and I were living on different coasts, so there was a lot of sending demos back and forth and writing on our own. With this record, the only thing I insisted on was that we work on the album together in one room. It’s the way we had always done it before, and I think it’s where some of the best stuff comes from. We took what we thought had worked well on the previous two albums and went from there. The songs were just much more thought out on this record.

I saw an interview with Tom Gable on YouTube a few months ago where he was discussing the song “Ache with Me” from Against Me’s! latest album, White Crosses. He mentioned that during the recording process, he wasn’t too pleased with that song, but that Butch Vig (producer) really liked it and pushed him to have it on the record. That said, how was it working with Matt Allison on The Speakeasy?  Did you find yourself butting heads with Matt on song selections or other issues at any point during the recording process?

No, I can’t remember any time in the studio during the last two records where anyone butted heads with Matt. He just doesn’t work that way. It’s weird because I like being pushed in the studio, but Matt takes a different approach. He gets the best performance out of you without being aggressive.

A lot of people I know hate their jobs, whether it’s because of the mundane work they have to do or personality conflicts with their bosses. That said, what’s it like working under the umbrella of someone like [Fat Wreck Chords founder/owner and NOFX bassist] Fat Mike?

Mike is a pretty good boss to have. He lets you do what you want. He lets you control your band. The best thing about him is you don’t ever have to wonder what he’s thinking. He’ll be brutally honest about loving or hating a song, a record, or any decisions your band is making. He won’t tell you what to do, but he’s always going to let you know how he feels about it. I like that kind of brutal honesty in people.

It seems odd to me that you have no immediately scheduled tour plans following the new album’s release. Any reason for this?

We just need some time to resolve some conflicts in our personal lives before we head out. It’s got to be the right tours, with the right bands at this point for us. Otherwise we’re just going to end up broken up again.

Having toured the country for so long, what is your favorite venue to play?  Least favorite?  Do you find it hard to get motivated for shows in some of the quieter, Midwest towns you play in with smaller punk scenes when compared with the New York and L.A.’s of the world?

I think my favorite venue to play is still the Middle East in Boston. When I moved to Boston, all I wanted to do was start a band and someday play on that stage. I saw so many amazing shows there, and whenever we play that stage I get very nostalgic. As far as the quieter scenes vs. the LA’s and NYC’s, it’s actually quite the opposite. I don’t know how many shows we’ve played in NYC where the show is sold out and the room is empty for the opening 3 bands. Everyone sits outside to be seen. In the small towns, people appreciate so much more that there is a show. We played in Anchorage, Alaska in 2005 with Against Me! and they hadn’t had a show there in three years. They had to turn away hundreds of people at the door. I think half the people there hadn’t even heard of the bands, they just heard there was live music. I love that.

What’s the best show you ever attended as an audience member?

That’s a tough question, but the first one that comes to mind was when I went upstairs at the Middle East Club in Boston to see my friend’s band Drexel play. Knapsack was playing too, and I was a fan of theirs. There were only about 20 to 25 kids at the show, and the opening band came out and just started tearing the place apart – doing flips off the stage, hanging from the ceiling. Everyone’s jaws were on the floor because they had never heard of them before, and had never seen or heard anything like it. [The band] was At the Drive-In. I bought their record and went home to tell my friends about this crazy band from El Paso that was going to be the biggest band ever. I think it only took about a month after that for them to completely blow up.

Are you familiar with Four Loko? It’s a popular alcoholic energy drink among kids out here that was recently banned from distribution by the FDA. What is your adult beverage of choice for pre-show warm-ups or otherwise?

I like a few beers before we play, usually Bud Light, but I’ll drink anything besides Heineken or Miller Light. I like Jack Daniels on the rocks. Usually I just drink whatever is there.

Your original Boston stomping ground is well known for having put out countless bands, but having grown up in Virginia myself, most people seem to be unaware of the caliber of the Richmond punk scene which has spawned artists such as Avail, Strike Anywhere, Gwar, At War, Municipal Waste, Conditions, etc. How has being from Richmond influenced your identity as a band?

When we lived in Boston, we thought Richmond was the best punk scene around. All of our favorite bands were from there. That’s part of the reason we moved there. Strike Anywhere stayed with us after a show we played up in Boston, and they couldn’t believe what we were paying for rent. We had seven people living in a three-bedroom apartment, and the rent was still through the roof. Thomas [Barnett, the singer] from Strike Anywhere, was like, “Why are you guys doing that?  Move to Richmond. It’s cheap.”  That’s when we really started thinking about it.

There’s always a lot of criticism about the direction of the punk scene. Who are some of the bands and artists that you find most engaging in today’s environment?

My taste varies a lot. I still love Propaghandi. I like The Thermals. I like Landmines. I like Surfer Blood. I like The Arteries. I like The Flatliners.

I’ve heard a lot of veteran bands express disenchantment about the trajectory the Warped Tour has taken over the past few years in terms of the artists they’re bringing in and the general commercialization of a festival supposedly grounded on “punk” ethos. What is your opinion on this?

I honestly haven’t been there in years, but I’ve heard horror stories. The first one I went to was in 1997, and it was Bouncing Souls, ALL, Rancid, Suicide Machines, and there were like 50 kids there to watch Blink 182 play. Some friends of mine played last year and told me that a lot of the bands were lip-synching to their own music and didn’t even have their shit plugged in. That sounds pretty bizarre to me, but you know the people running that shit are always going to give the kids what they think the kids want. It’s catered to the younger crowds, and apparently that’s what’s cool right now. I just feel lucky it was great when I was getting into punk rock.

Every band seems to have enough tour stories to put together a funny film documentary. What’s the strangest thing that has happened to you guys on the road?

Everyone’s favorite tour story of ours seems to be our flight from Japan to Australia. I hadn’t slept in about a week and was seriously burnt. I took like 3 sleeping pills and strapped myself in down an empty row of seats. It was the biggest plane I had ever seen in my life. So later, I woke up during the flight to about 300 people screaming at the top of their lungs, and the plane is nosediving. I’m completely out of it from the sleeping pills, so I don’t panic. I look over at our guitar player Jeremy who is biting down on his sweatshirt and looks completely freaked out, along with everyone else. [Jeremy] is shaking his head and looking across at our bass player Gwomper, who is in the seat in front of me. Jeremy looks so pissed. I sit up to see if Gwomp is okay and Gwomp is head banging and playing air guitar while everyone else is terrified. He told us later that he knew the plane was crashing and he had to do something about it, so he put on Slayer’s “South of Heaven” to change our luck.

Not to get too political or anything, but do you think it’s possible for individuals to have a conservative political mentality and still identify as themselves as punk?  Can the two ideologies coexist?

That’s tough to answer because my initial thoughts would be no, they can’t, because punk rock is about acceptance and free thinking, and being yourself. But punk rock can also be very elitist and close-minded as well. I don’t care what anyone’s views are, as long as they’re not hurting anyone else.

What’s the last tattoo you got?  Any particular meaning behind it?  Any favorites you have?  Any tattoo artists you’d like to give a shout out to?

I got a tattoo on my chest that says “Family.”  There are a lot of people in Richmond that have them. When we first moved there, we met a friend named Larry. He told us he would make sure we were always taken care of and showed us his “Family” tattoo. He has always taken care of us, and the people in Richmond are overall very loyal, great people. As for tattoo artists, I would like to give a shout out to the tattoo artist Freeman, of the band Freeman, because he owes me so many god damn free tattoos and I want them now!

We like to end interviews with a little free association. Say the first thing that comes to mind in this series of random words.

Spicolli, Redskins:  Mr. Hand

Monday, Tequila: Round throw up

Megan Fox, Starbucks: Expensive

Oreo, Leprechaun: Cookie beer

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