Interview: No Age

Robert Ham

By Robert Ham

on 08.20.13 in Interviews

No Age titled their fourth full-length An Object, a name that works on a few levels. On one hand, it’s a statement of defiance, speaking to their ongoing anti-corporate, punk-lifer ideologies: Guitarist Randy Randall and drummer Dean Spunt have taken high-profile stances against big-box stores and major shoe companies.

The songs on An Object kick even harder against a variety of pricks, from our failing financial industry (“No Ground”), the mercurial nature of the band’s punk forefathers (“Defector/ed”) and our poisoned consumer culture (“Commerce, Comment, Commence”). For all their rage, however, these 11 tunes are surprisingly restrained. The entire album feels denatured, with guitar tones pixilating apart and drums lost behind a wall of mist.

Naming this collection An Object has a matter-of-fact element to it as well. This is, the band avers, after all, just a thing. And, No Age is emphasizing the album’s object status by handling all of the production of the physical copies — from LP pressing and artwork production to assembly — themselves.

Robert Ham spoke with guitarist Randy Randall about how No Age is able to navigate the world of corporate-sponsored music and festivals, punk as an ethos, and the physical construction of An Object.

The title of the album — especially the way it is presented on the cover art — seems like a very pointed one. What was your thinking behind it?

There was a lot of wordplay in the lyrics so we were looking for something that had two or three, if not more, meanings. I think the first word that popped out for me when I was trying to characterize all the songs was “defection.” To be a defect and then also to defect, something that could be a noun and a verb at the same time. An object and to object became a similar sort of wordplay. To object to something, to stand against something and also to just exist as an object.

It seems to speak really well to this concept that you and [drummer/vocalist] Dean [Allen Spunt] have been focusing on with the physical copies of An Object, where you are handling the creation of each one yourselves.

There’s something very real about it. What does a term like DIY mean? For us, it was obvious: No one else was going to do it for us. There wasn’t really a choice. “We’re a do-it-yourself kind of band!” How could you not be? It’s as silly as, “These are the kind of guys who put their own shoes on!” Who else would do that for you? But as we’ve made our way, at some point we allowed other people to do things for us. Sometimes it works out well, and sometimes you start to lose where things are coming from and the message starts to get lost. It’s like a game of telephone. So, the question became, “Why can’t we do it?” Just because we’ve never done it before doesn’t mean we can’t figure it out. We didn’t know how to play our instruments when we started.

So are you really assembling as much of the packaging of the new album as possible yourselves?

This was a huge point for Dean. He runs a record label called Post Present Medium and he’s been getting more and more involved in the physical manufacturing of his releases. So when it came time to do our album, even though we’re doing it through Sub Pop, we wanted to bring in some of these new tools and means of production that he had been working on.

It is unusual in the sense that, as you’ve likely done with other Sub Pop releases, this is all stuff you could fob off on someone else or let them figure out.

This is one of the places where Dean and I disagree. I’m about playing music. I don’t enjoy folding boxes for 20 hours. But Dean’s been assembling a team of friends and well wishers. I don’t think we could fold all 10,000 boxes ourselves. For this first run, we’re doing 5,000 CDs and 5,000 LPs. I’ll come in and help the best I can, but I’ll be the first to tell on myself that I’m not a fan of folding boxes.

Having his own label and having a network of folks willing to step in and help must be great.

I think it almost speaks to more of a Type A, micromanaging kind of thing than an ethos. It goes both ways, too. If you want something done right, do it yourself. And if it comes out wrong, then you have no one to blame but yourself. We use that thinking all the time. We don’t have a manager. We’re pretty easy to get a hold of. It’s just the two of us. If you don’t like something in a song or something happened at a show, you can write us and tell us about it. We don’t have any handlers or anyone to keep those things away from us.

Does Sub Pop balk at this more hands-on approach that you take or the more overt political statements that you make, or are they happy to let you do whatever you feel?

They really support us. I think they kind of get some funny looks at times and we’ll also get some great high fives. I think we’ve definitely pushed some boundaries there. And they’ve taught us a lot about the work they do. We work with each person there so closely. We have to know the guy who does the graphic design layouts to make sure that he knows the color or the font that we need for the cover. It also helps us understand that it’s a huge operation. It’s a big company with a lot of moving parts.

Is that part of what keeps you on the label? You’ve said before that you can put out music anytime you want via Dean’s label and you’re at a point where you could still do well for yourselves, if not better, doing it that way.

Yeah, I think they’ve been awesome to work with and I think as much as we like to do stuff ourselves, it’s good to have an infrastructure there that already has experts or at least professionals that do what they do well. Folding boxes isn’t my favorite thing to do in the same sort of way that scheduling interviews or hounding people at magazines to do my own PR wouldn’t be my favorite thing to do. I can talk once it gets set up. I’ll jump on the phone right at the end and carry the baton across the finish line. One thing we’ve done is to hire an assistant to help us advance shows and book hotels and flights and that kind of stuff. At some point there’s only so much you can do yourself.

Because the physical object of the album is such an important part of this discussion, do you still see the benefit of how music is being distributed digitally?

I really see it both ways. I’m 32, so I’m not so young I don’t remember a time before. But I also don’t think they’re the worst thing in the world. Having access to every bit of recorded music on the planet is just another chapter in this. At the same time you have to have that questioning eye. Not everything you read is true, not everything you hear is great. I think you still have to have a curatorial, analytic mind about it. I think it’s great that our music is out there, and that anybody anywhere with internet access could find out about No Age and listen to our songs. We’ve seen a huge benefit from that.

To look at the other side of the title of the album, I did want to touch on the show you played in Barcelona where you showed a video critical of the sponsors during your set. The reason I bring this up is to ask if it is difficult for a band as politically-minded as you are to navigate this world where there are so many corporations becoming benefactors of music?

I don’t think it’s difficult for us. Dean and I both pretty clear on where we come from and what we believe in. I think it can be difficult for other people, booking agents or promoters. They’re trying to make everybody happy. I think we, for better or worse, occupy a rarified air. A little bit of an elitist nether region of “artists.” I’m fully aware of that. These corporations sell products and they maximize their profits to do it. I don’t have to. I don’t have to employ child labor or pay an unlivable wage in order to make my thing. But I understand that it’s apples and oranges. I also don’t think that you’re a bad band if you play a show like that. I don’t even think they’re a bad company. It’s more of making a statement that this is where we find ourselves today and I feel uncomfortable about it. You can put your head in the sand and go, “Well, I don’t know…” or you can say, “Let’s talk about it.” I don’t know if I’m going to come up with an answer but talking about it isn’t a bad thing.

It has to be tough because you have car companies and energy-drink companies sponsoring some pretty cool events and helping bands make records, but there’s a discomfort to it as well having a huge corporate interest involved in this art.

These companies are here to make money. If supporting the arts helps make them more money, they’ll support the arts. If sponsoring polo matches or dogfights or knitting competitions helped sell more products, they’d do that. I can guarantee you that once they’ve deemed it unprofitable to support your scene they’ll leave. If someone wants to take their money, that’s fine, but I don’t think anyone should fool themselves that these corporations are benevolent.

Do you have a threshold where it becomes not worth it to play shows like the one in Barcelona or doing a festival that is being supported by corporate interests?

Certainly. There are questions to be asked. When we started out, we didn’t have any prior knowledge of how these things work. Then the next day you see this picture of yourself playing in front of a big cartoon character selling a pair of sunglasses or whatever and you think, “Wow, I drove eight hours and slept on a dude’s floor and was up there playing my balls off, sweating, bleeding, giving it everything I can, but I see that photo…” It trivializes all the effort. At the same time, it’s gonna happen. And hopefully we’re going to play more than one show in your town. We’ve done that where we played one big show like that and then drove across town and played another show that felt right. We’re trying to figure out what makes the most sense for us.

Speaking of the fact that you work with a Seattle label that is so connected with that region, have you read the piece that John Roderick wrote for Seattle Weekly where he calls punk a “toxic social movement that has poisoned our culture?”

Wow…no I haven’t. You know what it calls to mind? From the beginning, we got saddled with this “lo-fi” thing. It was never our intention to do it that way, it was just what we had to work with. Once we got more money and learned more about recording, it got better and cleaner. Just because it’s punk, it doesn’t have to be shit. Like with the artwork for the album. If you want it to look good, it should look good. We’re using a local independent business to help with the printing of the covers. I still think that’s punk. Just because we didn’t pull the screen or steal the ink from the shop in our bike messenger bag and rode our fixed gear across the bridge to our punk house where we’re living with 10 other people, doesn’t make it less punk. Punk is what you make it. It’s an idea about being yourself and being out of step. I think punk as a culture can become very dogmatic. “You’re not following the punk rules.” There are no rules. As soon as something has a rule, I’m trapped in that. Don’t tell me there’s a rule. If you can name it, then it’s probably not punk.