The Milwaukee-based band Direct Hit! have been going strong since 2007. Their second album, Brainless God, really put the band on the map and earned them glowing reviews from just about every corner of the alt music world. Now the group has signed with Fat Wreck Chords and their debut album for the iconic label comes out on June 24.
UPROXX is pleased to present the world premiere stream of Wasted Mind in its entirety, which you can listen to below.
Direct Hit! singer/guitarist Nick Woods was gracious enough to give us an interview about how drugs and paranoia inspire their latest effort, how great work can come from laziness, and how the best punk is cut from the Midwest.
UPROXX: Your new album, Wasted Mind, is a concept album, but it isn’t your first foray into a thematic structure. You experimented with serialized releases when Direct Hit! first started, and your last LP, Brainless God, was a post-apocalyptic musical, more or less. What is it that draws you to these thematic through lines for your releases? Can these concept albums be considered a Direct Hit! staple at this point?
Nick Woods: Laziness is the real draw, probably. I find I can write lyrics a lot quicker, and more efficiently if I’m writing a story rather than a poem. Having a narrative structure means the words write themselves a lot of the time. For me, it’s just a matter of finding a concept that’s interesting to explore, or identifying one that’s been on my mind a lot, and picking out lyrical nuggets that can be built into songs. I watch a lot of genre movies and read comic books, and I’ve become relatively paranoid about life and other people. So fantastical or horrific stories are just what end up coming naturally to me – playing out worst-case scenarios on paper, and how to escape them, either mentally or literally.
The specific subject matter is just a reflection of what’s been on my mind. So yeah, I think the concept album thing is probably a staple for our band at this point. We were on tour once with the band Boys, and their singer, Megan, made fun of me once by asking, “So is like, Direct Hit! a concept band?” And it was hard for me to answer “no” to that question. But it’s tough enough coming up with new material, and I’m not gonna make it any harder on myself.
You’ve said that this album is, more or less, a meditation on drugs, inspired by Naked Lunch, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and your own late-to-the-party drug experimentation?
There’s this movie I saw late in 2014, right before we started writing Wasted Mind, called A Field In England, which kind of became the impetus for the album’s focus on drugs. It’s not that great of a flick, if you ask me, but the tagline for it stuck in my brain – “the horrors of war are nothing compared to those of the mind.” Our songs have always been about horrific shit: monsters, armageddon, death, Satan, you know? It just seemed like bad trips would lend themselves well to that shtick we’ve made for ourselves.
And so I started thinking about what a Direct Hit! album about drugs and the ‘horrors of the mind’ would be like, and the two most famous drug-inspired works I could think of were Fear & Loathing and Naked Lunch. Neither’s particularly horrific — if anything they’re both bizarrely funny — and both are more or less a collection of random, smashed-together stories set in a specific location where it’s tough to tell what’s real, and what’s not, and what’s completely fabricated and what’s seen through the lens of a substance. So we wrote the album almost like a mixtape, giving each song its own sound and identity. I like to think that, like Naked Lunch, the listener can put Wasted Mind on shuffle, and in doing so hear a new story, or get a different feel, and experience it differently every time, you know?
My lyrics are never about deep topics. They’re just dumb stories cooked up by my brain. But if you want me to wax philosophic, I think taken as a whole, this album is about perception, and how flimsy our definition of truth and reality can be. A piece of news becomes a different topic entirely when a different sentence is chosen as the lead. Songs you hate become incredible when you’re wasted, or someone you love can appear to be a monster. People alter their realities every day to make themselves feel secure, and in doing so make other parts of their lives hostile. With this album, I guess I’m questioning how we strike that balance, or whether there’s a “right” way to see the world, and a wrong way. Experimenting with substances has just been my own way of feeling it myself.
Some of the songs on the album (“Paid In Brains,” “Was It The Acid?“) are very much about drugs, as are the videos. They seem to have an ambivalent attitude toward drugs as a whole. As someone who has never been on drugs but always been moderately fascinated by them, do you have any grand conclusions about drug use in general, or maybe just drug use as it pertains to you?
Nothing grander than any conclusion anyone who’s experimented with them before me has reached. Mentally, some of the highest highs and lowest lows I’ve felt have come through experimenting with drugs. Not only because of how they made me feel directly, but how I’ve felt about myself having tried them – a guilt associated with having done something that’s maligned by a lot of people. It’s easy for me to see why so many people have scrambled their brains with reckless drug use. But I feel bad for those who won’t experience the kind of joy a well-timed dose of MDMA can bring, as artificial as it may be.
Also, I think it has to be asked: What drugs are we talking here? Did you get into that ayahuasca business?
Nothing that interesting. White-guy and club drugs, and marijuana. Even though I reference acid and mushrooms onWasted Mind a lot, I haven’t tried either. I’m interested in both though. Ayahuasca is something that I’ve thought a lot about. Maybe some day I’ll work up to that level.
Direct Hit! is part of my very favorite, very specific genre of music at the moment, which I refer to as “Sad Midwestern Pop Punk.” Banner Pilot, Masked Intruder, The Copyrights and a million other amazing bands have popped up in the past decade or so, just making amazing, heartfelt and deeply mournful pop punk. What do you think it is about the Midwest (or middle of the country, at least) that has made it such a fertile ground for this type of music? Why are you all so damned talented? Is it because it gets so cold in the winter? Or does it all just trickle down from Hüsker Dü?
I think isolation plays into it more than most other factors. The Midwest isn’t a “cool” place. We’re the butt of a lot of jokes. So a lot of people here who are interested in pop culture end up with the kind of melancholy you get from never being recognized or taken seriously for your art. It’s a struggle if you’re a musician here. You don’t get to go to parties and meet people who’ll pay you a few grand plus publishing to write a jingle for a commercial. Here, you don’t get to serendipitously have your music heard by Quentin Tarantino over the stereo in a store while he’s shopping for boots, and thus end up making a living on the one song he includes from your catalog in his new movie. Here, you play in basements for nothing, or in dives maybe a night or two a week where no one’s interested in hearing anything but classic rock covers in the background while they drink shitty beer at the bar. Here, you pay for your own recording time – the idea of a sponsor giving you a budget most of the time is laughable. You suffer when you make music or art here, most of the time.
At the same time, if you’re an entertainer or artist here, there’s not much else to do other than sit in your living room and write songs or paint, since there aren’t a million things to go check out every night of the week, and since finding paid work for yourself as a self-employed creative person is all but fruitless. It breeds a kind of focus that makes for great guitar players and singers and songwriters who do it for no good reason other than their love of music.
What do you think it is about pop punk that makes it such a palpable, indispensable genre to people like myself? I hear a Direct Hit! song or a Banner Pilot song and it just speaks to me on a level that few other mediums do.
I feel like pop punk is just very direct, which makes it easy to identify. And the learning curve is low, which makes it instantly accessible. Our music has never been about big ideas — it’s been about escapism, and losing yourself in something for a couple of minutes that isn’t political, or preachy, or desperately emotive. I feel like that’s the real power of the genre: You’ve heard all these songs before, so it’s satisfying for a lot of people to know them before they’re even done listening the first time. And that makes it easy to feel like there’s someone else you haven’t met who understands you. I feel like that’s a tremendously validating feeling.
Your music just seems to be getting more and more melodic and ambitious as time goes by. Is that a conscious choice, or a function of experience, or what?
We just get bored with playing the same shit over and over again. Our band started off writing these basic 2-to-4 chord songs, like most other pop punk bands. That constraint, I’d argue, is what defines the genre. So we just kept tacking more shit on to keep ourselves from getting tired of it. That’s part of the reason why we tried to give each of the songs on Wasted Mind a distinct identity, sonically. We just weren’t into the idea of writing 12 tracks that all sounded the same. It’s also a good argument for why this isn’t a pure pop punk record. I feel like that’s part of the fun of it.
There’s also a good amount of horns on this album and I get some real Rocket From The Crypt vibes off of “Paid In Brains.” Do you think Wasted Mind has any specific musical influences? And what can you tell us about the supporting musicians or production on the album and how that added to the sonic design of this album?
I was listening to a lot of “classic”-sounding punk records and European pop music while writing Wasted Mind – The Clash, Cock Sparrer, Billy Bragg, The Vaccines, The Who, Ted Leo. You can hear pieces of all of those on this album if you listen hard enough. I’ve also spend a long time talking shit on ska, even though a lot of people who love ska also like our band. So I sucked it up and went to that well when I started running out of ideas.
We were definitely lucky to have a lot of talented people backing us up though. This is the second album Mike [Kennerty, of the All-American Rejects] has produced for us. [He’s] someone who not only has an encyclopedic knowledge of punk and hardcore, but an expert opinion on what makes for accessible melody and arrangement. We were lucky enough to have awesome horn players: Brendan Frye, who plays in a band called The Atom Age, cut that ridiculous sax solo in “Promised Land,” and our friends Nate, Brad and Alex covered the ensemble parts in “Paid In Brains.” Franz Nicolay from the Hold Steady played keys on a few tunes too.
But I have to give the most credit to a dude named Scott Chesak, a friend of Mike’s who played and wrote almost all of the synth and keyboard parts on Wasted Mind with minimal direction. A lot of what he laid down elevated these songs, or brought them into a sonic realm none of us had thought about. I’ve never met him, but I hope to some day.