Interview with Bent Outta Shape: originally ran in Razorcake #30, with new intro by Lauren Measure

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In 2004, at a punk house in Brooklyn, Jamie Ewing, Matt Callahan, Ian Campbell, and Ren Khodzheyev formed the band Bent Outta Shape. Their honest and simple love for playing music left an indelible mark on friends and fans over the next three years. Comparisons have been made to the Replacements and even The Clash, but they were one of the few bands to revive a certain brand of heart-on-your-sleeve, bittersweet DIY punk. With Jamie’s signature guitar and wail, along with Matt (a.k.a. Skip)’s pared down drums, the band combined the mess of bands like Hickey or Crimpshrine with solid ‘90s indie-grunge, putting them a league away from others. They defined what it meant to be at an amazing and sweaty basement show for a generation of my friends.

I first saw them play a basement in New Brunswick where half the crowd was hanging out in the backyard on a nice night. Everyone I knew was excited about them, and I immediately understood why. But I kept thinking of all the people outside. YOU’RE MISSING THIS! It was one of those bands.

Bent Outta Shape and their home “Bent House” became focal points from that point on for my view of the Brooklyn scene. It was half charming punk house, half total shithole. Bent House was the place where they wrote songs and played living room shows. It was a place where friends watched the sunset on the roof, trying not to let beer cans roll off the edge, and then sat singing songs for hours after the show.  It was a place where the neighbors once pinned a note to the door saying, “Please stop playing. We don’t want to come home and have to hear your band.” Bands continued forming and practicing well after it was no longer technically Bent House. Jamie’s signature scratchy drawing style found itself onto flyers and any piece of printed matter. His notes were on the fridge long after he moved out.

It was the kind of time and place that so many cities and scenes recognize, but Brooklyn was lucky enough to have Bent Outta Shape and the extended family of weirdos that went with it. New York discontent shone through their restless songs that got many a struggling punk kid through it all.

Bent Outta Shape called it quits in 2006, just three years after forming. Their last show let them go out true to their form, featuring both current and previous members, packed into the tiny back room of Tommy’s Tavern in Brooklyn. Bigger than a house show, but barely. For those of us who were there, you knew something was ending but you weren’t quite sure what.

It wasn’t just the band; it was something that kept us tethered together.

It was often acknowledged that Bent Outta Shape and Jamie were the real deal. A zine accompanying their first EP includes an epic tale of how the band was formed, ending by alluding to the world ahead that was theirs to travel. It was a shitty world out there, but one worth dealing with nonetheless. Through songs and friendship, Jamie often made the world easier to handle.

To say in hindsight that everything about those times were ideal would be wrong. What made Bent Outta Shape memorable for so many people was how their ethos unpretentiously touted that things could be—and probably should’ve been—better. Number seven on Jamie’s Code of Ethics: Must yearn.

Two years after the band broke up, Jamie passed away unexpectedly in his sleep.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who couldn’t listen to his songs for a long time. Sometimes I still can’t. Sometimes I can’t even listen to bands that sound like Bent Outta Shape. Maybe that’s a testament to how much they meant and how much they still mean to so many people. You didn’t have to be there, or know them, to identify with the longing that comes from going with your gut, doing what you love, and getting your heart broken along the way. For the little kid in a flannel that you are or used to be, don’t miss out on Bent Outta Shape.

–Lauren Measure, 2013

There’s a sense of wide-eyed amazement that resonates through Bent Outta Shape’s music, like a kid drunk on cheap red wine exploring the highs and lows of life in a big city. There’s an undeniable Replacements influence in their songs, combining the sloppy, reckless abandon of Sorry Ma and Stink with the anthemic, slightly more cynical and world-weary approach of Let It Be and Tim. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to scream yourself hoarse no matter where you are or what you’re doing. After at least a hundred listens, I don’t think it would be unreasonable for me to call their Recess debut, StrayDogTown, one of the ten best records I’ve ever heard. This kind of band doesn’t come along very often.

Intro by Josh
Interview by Josh and Todd Taylor
Pictures by Megan Pants and Todd Taylor

This interview originally appeared in Razorcake #30, the 5th Year Anniversary Issue, 2006

Josh:
Can you explain the House of Good Names?

Jamie: That was a show space in New York. It’s tough to get a good scene going in the city because there are a lot of people and it’s hard to centralize everything. For a very short period of time, there was one spot where everything just really felt like a small town scene and everybody hung out together and had a hell of a lot of fun. There were a lot of shows there for a couple of months and it was awesome.

Skip: That was back when we first started playing a lot. It was really exciting.

Josh: What were some of the good names?

Skip: That was a house inside joke. We don’t know what that means.

Jamie: We have no clue. I never bothered to ask about the joke.

Todd: For someone who’s not from New York City, explain some of the difficulties of being a band, especially a DIY punk band, there.

Ian: When the House of Good Names was around, it was nice because it wasn’t just the House of Good Names, it was three or four houses within walking distance of each other, which made a difference because it was easier to keep the scene together. Everyone would hang out and then go over to the show together. Everyone lives in Brooklyn, but you can’t walk to each other’s houses. It’s kind of far away. It’s kind of a big to-do to get everyone together because there’ll be ten things going on every day. Ten shows in the city.

Skip: You’re just inundated. There’s like a million things going on every night.

Jamie: Having anyone give a shit about you is probably the toughest thing. “What makes you special? You’re just a band. There’s a million bands.” To get people to actually come see you is a great feat in New York.

Josh: When you put your phone number on the flyers, did anybody ever take you up on your offer to give them a ride?

Jamie: No. No one called me to get a ride. I was drunk when I made that flyer. I was like, “Yeah, I’ll give ‘em a ride!”

Skip: What flyer was that?

Jamie: Lou’s barbecue in the Bronx. I wrote a little thing like, “I’ll give you a ride if you call me. I don’t care!”

Skip: That was far away. It was like an hour and a half.

Jamie: You had to take the subway all the way uptown to the Bronx and then take a bus.

Skip: We knew no one would come. None of our friends came.

Ian: That was a whole other scene. There’s like ten different punk scenes in New York, but that makes it easy because you can play in front of different kids all the time.

Josh: What does Brooklyn mean to you guys and how does it influence what you do?

Jamie: I honestly don’t like it at all. I’d like to live somewhere else, but I think I get a certain kick out of it that I wouldn’t get anywhere else. It’s funny; you’re walking around and there’s this weird sense of competition going on everywhere. I don’t like it very much, but I live there by default. I see all my friends who I’ve known forever all the time. That feels good and I don’t like not having that. But as a band, the songs have a sense of place, and they wouldn’t be the same songs if we lived somewhere where it was cheap rent and easy times.

Ian: I’ve always thought that I’d move to New York. The three of us grew up half an hour outside the city, so I just assumed that I’d live there. And no one lives in Manhattan. If you’re going to live in New York and get by, you’re going to live in Brooklyn.

Skip:Brooklyn’s just where we ended up. I couldn’t have seen myself anywhere else. As a place, it sucks. It’s crazy. It drives the people who move there insane.

Ian: I don’t think it sucks.

Skip: No, I don’t think it sucks. I think it’s okay. Like I was saying earlier, there’s just all these things going on all the time. It’s a hard place to live in. And it’s expensive.

Nate: I’m from California, so these things are irrelevant to me.

Todd: Where?

Nate:Oakland.

Todd: What’s been the nicest letter that your neighbors have left on your door?

Ian: “Please stop playing.”

Jamie: We got a couple of those.

Ian: It’s hard to be a band in New York because there’s no space and everyone’s so cramped together. We used to live in a loft building where everything was just plaster walls. Everyone made noise. That was just the situation. Most of the people in the building were in bands and they were all practicing. For some reason, the people that we ended up next to were really uptight.

Jamie: The funny thing was that we knew the lady from when we were really young. She was a communist back when we were young and would be going to activist meetings. We all referred to her as Commie Sue. She knocks on the door, “Are you fucking kidding me? You can’t be practicing. I have to go to work!” And we were all drunk and we were like, “Commie Sue!” She said, “You guys… I’m not called that anymore!” One day she left a note on the door, so I wrote back to her like, “Dear Comrade, we were in solidarity with you in your struggle,” and all this stuff, and I drew hammer and sickles all over it, and she came in crying. “This is so mean! I’m not that bad, I’m just tired.” We were like, “Listen, you are not being cool, and you and your roommate are being a bunch of assholes and we’re gonna fuckin’ practice and that’s that.” Five minutes later, the cops came.

Josh: Did your neighbors really turn off the power during one of your shows?

All: Yeah.

Jamie: How did you guys hear about that?

Josh: There’s something about that on the first 12”.

Jamie: They turned off the fuckin’ power and we got pissed off. We were waiting.

Skip: We would have two people play and make a lot of noise and then two people would stand next to the power box, waiting to fight somebody.

Todd: How did you guys get a watermelon-painted van?

Ian: We painted it.

Jamie: It came to me in a dream.

Todd: Did it give you any problems?

Jamie: We never got pulled over or anything. It was the best van ever. We could have eleven people in it comfortably.

Ian: We never brought any drugs in the van because we always figured we’d get pulled over, so we’d do all the drugs first, but we never got pulled over.

Todd: What happened to it?

Ian: It just died. It actually died kind of gloriously. The engine block cracked and I was driving down the street and there was this huge cloud of white smoke for a whole block behind me. It was like the Mystery Mobile from Scooby-Doo; I’m driving this crazy van and there’s a huge cloud of smoke. We donated it to blind kids.

Jamie: Yeah, so you’re gonna see some guy driving a bunch of blind kids around in a watermelon van.

Skip: That says “Wild Pony” on the back.

Josh: Explain the new van.

Nate: Dent Outta Shape.

Josh: How did you get it for so cheap?

Jamie: There’s a giant dent in it and the fact that there are no windows and no one wants it. It was a construction van and, actually, the guy who sold it to me was wearing a Hanson T-shirt. He was like, “Yeah, I’m in a band, man. We got a bus. I don’t need to have this thing anymore. We’re going on tour with fuckin’ Megadeth.” It seems like it’s doing okay for us so far.

Skip: There are no windows, so it gets really hot. But you get used to it. It’s cozy and you can drink in the back of it.

Todd: A philosophical question: You guys were in a lot of bands prior to this one, and I think two or three of you were on a trip and you went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How does “a mixture of paranoia and fresh nostalgia” give you more focus to be Bent Outta Shape and push it further?

Jamie: That was just Ren writing. Ren is nuts. What he meant is that we were in this stupid band—well, it wasn’t stupid, but everything good about it was gone—called the Lazer, and we were still trying to keep it going. We just goofed around so much in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Todd: Anything specific?

Jamie: The Rolling Stones and the punk part. [laughter] No, it’s true. They showed Keith Richards’s stuff and they showed this note that this young English girl wrote to them saying, “I hate you. You make me sick.” They had the bass that Paul Simonon smashed (from the cover of London Calling)… I didn’t even have that great of a time, but Ren was freaking out. So, anyway, the point was that we got back in the van feeling really good and we were like, “Fuck this stupid band. Let’s do our other band.” We were just kind of goofing around in the basement once in a while to kill time, but we didn’t actually consider ourselves a real band. When we decided to be a real band, we called the Pony over here and ruined his life.

Todd: I know this is a previous band and a previous band member, but I kinda want to get the story. How did somebody get a dog to lick gummy bears out of their asshole?

Jamie: Adam…

Ian: There’s a hundred stories like that.

Jamie: There’s a picture of someone eating a twist roll out of Adam’s asshole. His mom found pictures of him with cucumbers and squashes up his ass.

Ian: I lived out in Colorado for a year with a couple of the guys from the Lazer—Adam being one of them—and their brother. The two brothers… their father’s a preacher and everything. It’s this crazy thing. Someone started talking about GG Allin or something, and then they went to the store and they came back with bananas and cucumbers and bottles of root beer… And they’re videotaping this whole thing, greasing up their asses and going at it. I’m just sitting there like, “What the fuck are you guys doing?” But what the hell, I don’t really give a shit. One of the brothers got arrested for shoplifting and then they went back home. Their parents—the preacher—found the videotape of their sons shoving all this stuff in each other’s ass and going crazy. And then they came back out to Colorado and they went on this whole thing about how my house is this den of sin and had homosexual orgies and all this.

Josh: Ian, can you explain this? You were eaten by a bear, stomped by a moose, and you battled a city?

Ian: Battled a city? I thought it was supposed to be communism, that I battled communism.

Jamie: No, it was “battled a city.”

Ian: We all played in bands together in junior high and high school and we were in a tight scene, but then after high school, people kind of went their separate ways. Some people stayed, Jamie moved out west, and I moved out to Colorado. Right when I moved out there, I ended up in the woods with no shoes on and my feet were bleeding and I was lost. I turned a corner and there was this huge black bear right in the middle of the path.

Todd: What did you do?

Ian: I put my hands up over my head and spread my legs out and I started talking to it. “Hello, bear. I’m not from here. I’m from New York. I don’t want any trouble. I’m just going to get on the ground and walk away.” That was pretty good. Stomped by a moose was… Ren made that up. [laughter] Battled a city… I don’t even know what “battled a city” means. I thought it was communism, because when I lived in Vermont, I punched this communist kid in the face one time.

Todd: Why’d you do that?

Ian: There were all these kids in the International Socialist Organization up there, and I just kinda hung out with them because…

Todd: They knew how to party?

Ian: Yeah. They went down to Mexico and had all this bootleg tequila. But they were cool. We would talk about politics and argue and stuff. One of the kids, I would talk to him all the time, but we would always argue about politics. That was what our relationship was based on. He was from Long Island and he hated it, and I’m from Long Island and I love it. He was a hippie and I was a punk, so it was like this epic feud, like we were bound to battle. The whole communist party up there went to Aikido together. So we were drinking at this party one night and he was talking some shit and said, “If you don’t shut your mouth, I’m gonna bust my Aikido on you.” So I was like, “Okay, we’re going downstairs.” We went out onto the front lawn and I put up my dukes. He just looked at me, and then I popped him right in the face and he went down with one shot.

Jamie: Pony, you’re a real man. That’s battling communism.

Ian: Yeah, that was my battle, I guess.

Jamie: You really showed that communist kid how it works.

Josh: So what happened to Ren?

Jamie: We have this band house where we all live. Basically, he wasn’t showing interest in the band anymore and he was acting weird, and then he moved out of the house out of nowhere.

Ian: He screwed us on the rent, too.

Jamie: It was just kind of a general “fuck you” to the band. It’s like if you were working a job and you wanted to get fired, like he wanted to leave the band. I think now he wants to be in the band again, but at the time he didn’t want to be in the band at all. I called him one day and said, “We don’t want to play with you anymore.” He was kind of pissed.

Skip: He’s always had this other bunch of guys he played with, and he kinda goes back and forth between interest in us and interest in them.

Josh: How did you guys hook up with Nate?

Jamie: This guy right here. This fine fellow…

Ian: We hung out with him last summer when we were in Oakland, and then after Ren left, we needed to get another guitar player. So, we just thought about all of our buddies across the country, like, “Fuck, who are we going to get to play guitar?” We wanted someone who was going to move into the house and it’s kind of a big thing to ask. We didn’t want to just ask some friend of ours that weren’t going to be all into it.

Nate: So, basically, they asked a complete stranger.

Skip: None of us really knew Nate.

Nate: Everyone had met me but no one knew me. No one knew my last name or anything.

Skip: But he was the first person that came to mind when we were thinking about who could play guitar.

Jamie: It was weird.

Skip: All of us really wanted Nate to play for no reason. I had never even heard Nate play guitar.

Ian: We hung out and we all liked the same bands and had some mutual friends.

Nate: Makes sense.

Todd: How are you adjusting?

Nate: All right. I was working at a tie-dye factory for a while. That sucked. Now we’re on tour. That’s cool. You get the ups and downs.

Todd: Everybody has to answer this. It’s a two-part question. What keeps you hopeful?

Nate: Drugs. Booze. Women.

Ian: Just hopeful in general?

Todd: Yeah.

Jamie: What’s the second part of the question?

Todd: What keeps you cynical?

Skip: Should we do it one at a time?

Todd: However you’re comfortable with it. What keeps you hopeful as a band, even?

Jamie: That someone might like us. Not that many people like us, but I think a few people really like us, and that really makes me happy. I wouldn’t care if a lot of people liked us—that doesn’t matter—but every once in a while, someone will come up to me and be like, “Hey, I really, really like you guys.” It makes me feel like I’m not wasting my time. We don’t really do anything else. It’s not like we have the band and then we do other things. It’s all we do. We’re a band. We live together and we spend all of our money on getting shit together and all of our time is based on one or two specific things.

Skip: When you’re on tour, you can get bummed out on things, but there’s nothing that we care about more. What else do you want to do other than be in a rock and roll band? No matter how much it sucks some times, what keeps you hopeful is that there’s not really anything better to do. There’s no reason to just not do this. I think that’s the thing for me; I just don’t know what else I would do.

Ian: Things that keep me hopeful about the band… yeah, I mean, there are people in bands that I really like, people who I think have good musical taste and can see when things are valid and not bullshit. They like my band and they think what we do is cool. I always keep bouncing it off them and keep trying to push the limits of even what they would like, which is kinda fun.

Jamie: Trying to out-cheese yourself.

Ian: When someone really likes your band, you get extra leeway in their minds of what you can do. There are some bands and some people where I’ll buy their record without hearing it because I trust them as musicians. On a small scale, I feel like we have that with some people.

Nate: I got nothing.

Ian: Free drinks.

Todd: So Jamie, you write most of the lyrics, right?

Jamie: Yeah.

Todd: Do you think you have some self-esteem issues?

Jamie: Here’s the thing, I hate bands where the singer is talking about how he’s the man. I don’t really like that shit, that whole lead singer persona. I think stuff’s much easier to relate to when it’s like Johnathan Richman. That’s a big influence. We obviously don’t sound anything like his stuff, but there’s the same spirit. I write songs about how I feel, which is usually pretty crummy and pretty stepped-on. That’s it, I guess. The answer is yes. I have some self-esteem issues.

Todd: Were you really in the hospital?

Jamie: Yeah, I punched a window. I was going out with this girl and she was going out with this other guy. It was my birthday, like three years ago, and she broke up with him for my birthday, which was cool. But then I started to get too drunk at her house and she got pissed off and kicked me out, so I punched a window and had to go to the hospital. Then I got out of the hospital and she had invited him back over and they were reading my journal. And they were making fun of me in front of a lot of people.

Josh: How do you feel about being referred to as a guitar hero?

Jamie: Oh, it’s cool.

Josh: Because it says that on the record and I know at least two people who have called you that.

Jamie: I can dig it. I mean, Nate’s my guitar hero, so… I don’t think I’m that good. I think I’m okay.

Skip: You called yourself a hack the other day.

Ian: You also called Mick Jones a hack.

Jamie: Mick Jones is not that good at guitar. I think I’m just as good as Mick Jones, but that doesn’t say that much. Mick Jones knows the basics. To answer your question, I think I’m probably as good as Mick Jones.

Josh: Ian, did you break your ankle while skateboarding in loafers?

Ian: Yeah, I’m always breaking myself on my skateboard in loafers. I really like comfortable footwear, so I’m always wearing penny loafers or a boat shoe. I always skate in stupid shoes because I just wear slip-on shoes and I’m always skateboarding and falling down. That happened right before a tour or a show or something. My shoulder’s still fucked up because the day before this tour I tore something skateboarding in my loafers again.

Todd: If somebody could take one thing away from a Bent Outta Shape show, what would you want it to be? What impression do you want to leave on people?

Nate: Bent Outta Shape is more of an attitude than a band. We don’t really play “music.” [laughter] Wait, wait. Shut up, guys. What I’m trying to say…

Skip: You’re the man, Nate.

Nate: Thank you, Skip. Finally someone realizes the attitude.

Ian: Hopefully some people will want to get the record after they see us. Not just so we’ll have money, but I’m really proud of the songs and I’m really proud of the record. There aren’t that many bands that I see that really knock me off my feet, but I love music and listening to records, and I hope that this record can be special for people. So I hope that we catch them with the music and they think, “Wow, there’s something here.” And then they get the record and it means something to them.

Jamie: We sort of have a concept, and if people get it, then that’s cool. We have a specific feeling that we try to portray.

Skip: There’s this idea of desperation, like this is all you have, that one thing that you really care about. None of us are stellar musicians or anything, but I think there’s something there, because everything we have is in it. I guess that’s what I’d want you to see, that we’re putting all of ourselves into it. Someone could play our songs without having to think about it, but there’s a feel to it. I guess that’s what I want people to see.