Migrating from the hard-touring Thumbs into the Sick Sick Birds
"Something about a pint glass breaking always makes your night go better," sings Sick Sick Birds frontman Mike Hall in pop-punk's signature could-yell-if-I-want-to sing-song. That's the introduction to SSB's debut full-length, Heavy Manners (Toxic Pop)--a wicked-fun, eight-song pop-punk romp that nicely straddles the line between basement-show punk spit and bark and grown-up hooks and melodies. Listening, the image that comes up is a sweaty-as-hell Sidebar, or, hell, Memory Lane--everything is jostling and confusing. Maybe it still has that humid cigarette-flavored skeen. Maybe there's a fight. In any case, you just know that at that point someone's riding enough of a buzz to break a glass of something cheap on the floor. You have, quite possibly, seen this scene, almost exactly.
The line above conjures a sense of nostalgia. "Let's have a round for the truest kind of mania," the song continues later, and you know it's talking about the punk club, the show, the frenzy of a crowded room in front of a very loud, snarling band. It feels almost like an homage.
Sick Sick Birds are a relatively new band in Baltimore, starting out in the earlier part of this decade in the wake of the Thumbs--a punk band that included Hall and SSB's guitarist Bobby Borte--which started in 1995 and became local legends before disbanding in 2003. "I'd been in a band pretty much every day of my life for 15 years or so," Hall says, talking about the Thumbs' end. "I think I took it for granted that I had this perfect ready-made channel where I could focus my creative energies. When that was gone, I really felt a little lost.
"I think that the personality of our band was so focused on the idea of being a hard-working touring band," Hall continues. "And, eventually, it just became too hard to keep it up. We were ready to do some other things with our lives, and without the constant touring, the Thumbs just didn't quite make sense."
Which is another way of saying Hall and company have grown up, at least insofar as punk rockers can grow up. And it's really easy for punk bands to fuck up growing up. If you haven't seen the New York Dolls recently, there's still a slight chance you think they're not, like, the saddest live band on the planet. Sick Sick Birds--Borte, Hall, drummer Lee Blades (who replaced Matt Dorsey, boyfriend of City Paper Special Projects Editor Anna Ditkoff, after the recording of Heavy Manners), bassist (and former City Paper contributor) Melissa Jacobsen, and guitarist Eric Jacobsen --rather, have taken their years to heart, ventured into new songwriting ideas, and, vitally, realized that the touring lifestyle isn't a bottomless proposition.
"I think we have been really lucky to find great people to play with who are also at a similar point in their lives," Hall says. "I think we all take the band seriously but, at the same time, we respect the value of each other's time. It also definitely helps to have spouses who understand how important writing and playing music is to us and go out of their way to support our ability to keep doing it.
"Our days of getting in the van for six to eight weeks at a time are certainly over. But I could see us doing a few shorter tours here and there. It would be more of a vacation/tour with all of our spouses, going to places that we would all like to visit."
The band's touring ambitions may be toned down, but the music isn't. The uneasy, blasted edges, though, aren't there so much. SSB songs are cleaner; guitars jangle, a chorus or guitarscape hovers in the background, lyrics are sung rather than scraped out and flung--it's frequently political and pissed pop-punk music that blows kisses to the Clash but just as much to old '70s garage bands. Daresay, Heavy Manners delivers more than a few bona fide earworms.
"I think the presentation has changed, but the songs are actually pretty similar," Hall says. "It's funny, when I wrote for the Thumbs, in my head I was always writing something that sounded kind of like a Cure or Smiths song. You write it on the acoustic and then you get it in the practice room and bang away at it with loud drums and half stacks and vocals to match, and all of a sudden it's a completely different thing. Me and Bobby always thought we were crooning and melodic, and it always came out more pissed-off and aggressive."
That's not the case now. "I think the Sick Sick Birds take more of a song-by-song approach," he says. "Strip a song down to nothing, and then build it back piece by piece by feeding it what it needs to reach its potential. And don't be afraid if each song has a completely different sound. No touring means we have no deadlines on recording. We take our time and get it the way we want it. You put a song out there and it's out there. You can't pull it back."
The Thumbs headed down to what's promised to be a brief reunion at a mammoth pop-punk festival known just as the Fest in Gainesville, Fla. "I think that we decided to do this one because it's an opportunity to hang out with a lot of people and bands that were a huge part of our lives when the Thumbs were touring," Hall says. "I'm pretty sure this is a one-time thing."
Hall, though, is catching an early flight that Sunday morning, so he doesn't miss the chance to take his kids out trick-or-treating. Yes, fatherhood and punk coexist. "Every once in a while I'll overhear one of my kids in the other room singing something like 'Ready, Steady, Go' by Gen X," he says. "And that's a beautiful thing."