Years ago, it was Lagwagon’s song, Owen Meaney (not my high school English teacher) that introduced me to John Irving’s bestselling eponymous novel about faith and social justice. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that despite the band’s witty song catalog, their latest album Hang (due October 28th on Fat Wreck Chords) is all about intellect. While the melodies rule, it’s the lyrics that set this record apart. Hang is a stunningly substantive commentary on the human condition that addresses themes including loss, betrayal, aging and more. In short, it’s an album that makes you think. I recently caught up with frontman Joey Cape to hear more.
Corey: Hang is a total ripper with a lot of deep subject matter. One of the songs that really caught my attention was “Obsolete Absolute.” Tell me about that one.
Joey: I wrote that song about the inevitability of obsolescence that comes to all things – even humans. It’s just part of aging. It’s an interesting subject to think about, you know? The whole record has a little bit of that tone to it – about growing old, being an old man (laughs). But yeah, as you get older there are so many things in your life that come and go whether they be devices or whatever. Just look at cassettes or CDs. Those are good examples.
What a bass line on that track, eh? How do bass lines get written in your songs?
Oh yeah. Joe’s [Raposo] a great bass player. This record was musically the most collaborative record we’ve made. Joe and I did a bunch of work together in my studio for bass lines. When we did the demos, we sat together and talked about what we wanted to do. I had an idea for bass lines but in some cases his were much better.
Would you agree that the bass is an underrated instrument among most music fans? If so, why do you think that is?
There are a lot of bass players that maybe were guitar players that decided to play the bass because there is a greater need for bass players. There is so much you can do with a bass. It can be an undercurrent as it is most of the time, but it’s correlated to so many other things going on in a song. But yeah, the bass is definitely an underestimated instrument and you know when you hear a really good bass player because the sound isn’t “in your face” yet it’s creating more of a symphony.
There is a noose on the album cover, which seems pretty consistent with the subjects you tackle in the songs – things like betrayal, loss, aging. Was this album a catharsis of some sort for you?
Absolutely. This is an album that is basically a series of my rants and things I’ve been talking about for years with friends. Every once and a while a friend will say “You should write about that.” I’ve always been like “Fuck that, that’s like bitter old man stuff.” And it really isn’t bitter old man stuff. I think everyone, as they get older, they have observations about the world around them and things they talk about with their close friends and family. But yeah, it’s always cathartic to write lyrics if you write them about things that trouble you.
It seems to me that as many bands mature their lyrics become less poetic and more direct and accessible, almost to a fault. What are your thoughts on this? Would you characterize your lyricism this way?
I’m not sure. I just write. I would speculate that as any writer grows older they might grow more brave and honest in what they write. But there’s never a time when I question the things I’m writing about. I can’t speculate about other lyricists or their process, but for me if it feels good to write about, then I write about it.
I saw you featured recently in a documentary on Descendents called Filmage [interviewer’s note: it’s awesome]. How did your involvement with that come about?
I’ve been a fan of that band since their beginning. I was fortunate to be at Punk Rock Bowling in Vegas where [the movie crew] was off doing interviews to the side. They were taking people throughout the day and I got to interview for it. Milo Goes to College, that specific album, was just huge in punk and to me. I don’t think there would have been a [Lagwagon] song like Angry Days without that album.
Will we ever get to see a Lagwagon documentary?
It’s funny you should ask. We’ve actually been working on one for a long time. There’s kind of a shorter version, I think, that the label’s going to do something with. I’m really not sure where we ended up on that. It’s kind of up in the air right now. But the plan I think is to work on [the documentary] for another year or so.
If Tony Sly was around and had a hand in the production and songwriting process for Hang, how do you think the album would have been different?
Tony’s songwriting is different from mine, for sure. I imagine it would have been really great. I’m a huge fan of Tony’s. I think he has more of a folk, rootsy thing going on in his music. He’s got a really good handle on that kind of thing – or he did. And I imagine there would have been more of that. I don’t hear much of any of that happening with our new record (laughs).
Tony was highly respected among his peers, but I never felt he never received as much recognition as he deserved in the wider music community. Do you agree with that?
I agree. When I think about that, I always think about his lyrics. He had an amazing ability to write words. There are two things about lyrics. One, are they thought-provoking or saying something that you haven’t heard before, or in a way you haven’t heard them before? And two, do they speak from the heart? You can say something very, very simple, but if it comes from a place that’s really true, you can hear it. Tony had both those things. He always spoke from this really deep, pure place and he had an originality to the things he wrote.
I’ve got ask – you’re one of the few mainstays in the punk scene that’s stayed away from tattoos throughout your career. Has that just never been your thing?
There was never really one thing that I felt strong enough about. The first time that I almost got a tattoo I was 14 years old and that was 34 years ago. Every few years I had an opportunity. I know a lot of tattoo artists around the world that are good and have offered to give me a tattoo if I wanted. There were times that I thought about something, and I always ended up thinking, it’s almost more “exceptional” that I don’t have a tattoo.
I want to touch on your solo material for a bit. I discovered the Liverbirds album well after it came out, but I really enjoyed it, especially the song Whipping Boy. Tell me about that one.
I think it was Jon Snodgrass who covered that song at some point and he changed the melody a little bit, and with the twang he has to his voice it sounded really cool. I played an acoustic version of [the song] on the record, which I think was a no-brainer. When I first started doing solo shows that was one of the songs that worked well acoustic.
You started your own label recently, right? Tell me about that.
I’ve done a few labels over the years. Many, many years ago, I had a label called My Records. But it’s really hard, because all the bands that are on your label are like your babies and you’re clawing to get them any sort of exposure and dealing with all these middlemen just to get a record out there to people. I think it’s a full-time job. I don’t think you can really do what I do with fans and stuff and focus on a label. The thing I do now with [One Week Records] is different though. It doesn’t’ require as much time and it’s all digital.
I know you’re fond of the lyric video as an artistic format. What draws you to that form of expression?
Well, I’m a lyricist and I like lyrics so I’m one of those people where if I listen to a song and I don’t think the lyrics are good I can’t listen to it. It’s ruined many, many bands for me (laughs). Naturally, I’m a fan of the lyric video because most artists would probably choose a song that has deep lyrics, or at least the ones I’ve seen do (laughs). It’s cool. You get to listen to a song and see the lyrics.