“It’s always the easiest and least interesting route to have a preconceived notion of what band you want to sound like and then go do that.”
Eli Kasan’s riffing again. And I’m listening close for clues.
“We were terrible early on ‘cause we wanted to sound like too many things, and weren’t sure which suited us best and let our real personalities shine through. Should a band not be a representation of the individuals that are in it?”
Kasan’s band, The Gotobeds, is a punk rock king in Pittsburgh – except it’s no king here and it’s not what you’d traditionally define as punk rock. Or is it? Yes, yes, the band, which formed about a decade ago – before all this America’s Most Livable City nonsense, from the ashes of Burgh-based hardcore purveyors Kim Phuc – packs its catchy, often freakishly earwig-ish indie-rock songs with lots of raging guitars. But, the bands to whom The Gotobeds draw comparisons are more punk in attitude than traditional construction.
And the idea that The Gotobeds rules the Paris of Appalachia?
“Still don’t think we’re ‘local favorites,’” Kasan, Gotobeds’ guitarist and singer, told me. “I do think there is a prevailing attitude that you need to be ‘big’ in your hometown and, boy, do I feel like that is a fool’s errand. There have been tons of great bands that never leave town to elevate beyond being a ‘local band.’ I understand it stands to reason that if you’re playing for fun, you play Gooski’s once every so often and there’s hundreds of people there and you get free beers – why would you want to start completely over to drive to another town to play to no-one and make nothing? Well, it makes you a better band and a better performer when you have that experience. It hardens your resolve. If you’re doing it right, it will get you attention from labels and shit who will 100% never put out your record unless you’ve toured. Or that isn’t your goal and that’s okay, too.”
“If we sounded terrible early on it’s because we hadn’t really figured out what our strengths were,” bassist Gavin Jensen said. “We all had these shared cultural touchstones – the oddball Messthetics post-punk art-punk clatter, 80s hardcore, 90s lo-fi slop – but no clear idea of how we wanted to express our love of that stuff without just parroting it. It took a bit of trial and error to work out that process and we continue to tinker with it, broadening the scope of what we think we can get away with in the music but also zeroing in on how we can put our specific imprimatur on a track.”
“Music as a business starts to suck at a point, so you just need to know your threshold,” Kasan added.
The Gotobeds – Kasan (Hazy Lazer), drummer Cary Belback (Open Cary), Jensen, and guitarist Tom “TFP” Payne— has not hit that threshold yet. After getting some play on WFMU, an influential underground radio station based in New Jersey, the group entered Matador Records label-head Gerard Cosley’s orbit. He released the group’s Poor People Are Revolting LP on his 12XU Records in 2014. After a glowing NPR piece, the vultures, in the band’s words, started to circle.
A contract with Sub Pop Records (no small potatoes; just ask Nirvana) and a sophomore outing, Blood Sugar Secs Traffic, followed in 2016, and two between-LP affairs – a Comedy Plus One release of the band’s first demo and early 7-inches, and an EP covering Redd Kross’ eponymous debut – came a year after that.
“Anyone can book a show at Gooski’s — you can book a show and just bring a projector and play all eight Earnest movies while making noise on your grade school recorder,” Belback said. “We’ve never been local favorites; just ask the many local radio stations that have never played us – except WRCT, which is the best radio station in the world.”
Despite – or maybe fueled by – this jadedness, the momentum continues in 2018, when the band is set to release its third LP on Sub Pop. They’re currently riding the fadars and making a ruckus at The War Room studio.
The new LP, tentatively titled Debt Begins At 30, is, according to the band, mostly completed and features some recording at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studios in Chicago with engineer Matthew Barnhart.
Barnhart told me he considers The Gotobeds “a straight-up punk-rock band.”
“I don’t know if punk-rockers would agree,” he laughed, adding, “and if I had to say what they sounded like, it’d be Wire’s mischievous kid brother. These guys are, like, music nerds, punk-rock nerds, and they’re making music for guys like me.”
Barnhart stressed, though, that there is a method behind The Gotobeds’ madness.
“While these are guys who like to have a good time – they don’t take themselves too seriously and they don’t take their music too seriously – they don’t half-ass it,” he said.
That fits the description many in The Gotobeds’ immediate circle paint of the band members.
Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich, a longtime fan who guest-appears on the new LP, said “they are a determined group.”
“The Gotobeds are a relentlessly enthusiastic and exciting band,” said Nastanovich, who recorded “vocal noises” into his cell phone and texted them to Kasan for use on the new LP. “I wish there were dozens like them but, if there were, they wouldn’t be special.”
Cosloy, the indie-label head, told me “they seem like fairly responsible, hard-working characters to me.”
But, isn’t it true, I posed to Cosloy, that Kasan drunk-texted you one night?
“More like one thousand nights!” he replied.
I rest my case.
“We love The Gotobeds for their sharp, catchy songs and their playfully vicious take on living, breathing, and drinking in our mess of a world,” the band’s A&R man, Sub Pop Records’ Nick Turner, told me. “And, of course, for their handsome visages and TFP’s hat.”
TFP/Payne shines the light away from his hat and himself all together.
“I was the last one to join the band after my man Jeff left to move to Austin so I guess that makes me the scab,” Payne said. “I played drums in Kim Phuc with Eli before Gotobeds, and wanted to play guitar. So as soon as Eli mentioned they were going to need someone to take Jeff’s spot, I jumped in. Funny side note: Jeff also played bass in Kim Phuc and quit that band right before I joined and the band got good.”
“Either I’m the secret to success or Jeff is the dead weight,” he laughed. “What else would you like to know about Jeff?”
Then there’s the press, which, despite an occasional and surprising lack of local fanfare, has been quite kind.
“Part of The Gotobeds’ appeal is their convivial flippancy,” SPIN scribe Rachel Brodsky wrote in an explitive-laced feature in 2016.
“For a record steeped in off-kilter post-punk and chaotic garage rock, Blood // Sugar // Secs // Traffic retains a surprising amount of pop sensibility, providing it with an accessibility other records of its genre lack. Despite this, it’s still a record that clatters and cavorts with willful abandon,” Dave Beech wrote in magazine The Line of Best Fit.
“The Gotobeds’ members come from Pittsburgh, Penn., a place notorious for keeping great local bands to itself. But the racket these guys kick up on their first album, Poor People Are Revolting, might be too strong for the city to contain.”
That’s NPR back in 2014, when Poor People started getting attention.
“There’s something crazy going on in every room, the front porch and the backyard: a party that never dies down or seems to stop, even as the neighbors complain and the cops drive past. Working from the spirit and fundamentals of a small handful of influences — the design sense and intellectual rowdiness of The Fall; the constant evolution and masterful poker faces of Wire, from whose drummer these guys borrowed their name; the sturdy, heroic melodic sense and layered tape-loop production of Mission of Burma — The Gotobeds’ members paint a dirty, driven, vulgar portrait of Rust Belt restlessness.”
While Poor People was full of punk-inspired gems, Blood Sugar tilted, however slightly, more towards hooks and melody. But the band admits the new record is a heavier, uglier affair, more concerned with their collective state of mind, and written in a faster, slap-dash fashion.
“An artist paints his yard,” Pittsburgher Karl Hendricks, the late Merge Records artist who knew Kasan, used to say.
“We never intended to get popular. The only reason Sub Pop signed us is ‘cause they thought we were Parquet Courts,” Belback deadpanned. “They don’t pay attention very well. Once the papers were signed there really was nothing they could do.”
That’s good news for us punk-rock fans out there. – Justin Vellucci, Punksburgh, Jan. 26, 2018