How to turn disease into celebration? How to turn fuckedupedness into anthems? How to lay bare crippling emotions into songs that fat, hygiene-questionable dudes will sing along and spill beer to? I’m no emotion scientist, but I do know that Off With Their Heads twist what—on paper, parallels—the contents of a Smiths song and pretzel it into gruff, punchy indictments that’ll make any DIY punker grimace along to in acknowledgement: “Shit’s bad. I’m a fuckup. I’m self-aware, but I don’t learn dick. My emotions are a twelve-car pileup. Mangled bodies are strewn on the icy interstate of bad choices…and my first reaction is to laugh. Beer me.”
What could be the musical equivalent to emotional tree sap on the windshield of some crybaby’s despair, OWTH turn into scream therapy. Not a bad trick for a self-proclaimed pop punk band who say they can barely play their instruments. Off With Their Heads are a very good band. I recommend listening to them.
Interview and photos by Todd Taylor
Ryan Young (vocals, guitar)
Justin Francis (drums)
Portions of this interview originally ran in Thrasher Magazine.
Todd: Is there any validity that Off With Their Heads is kind of like the Smiths of late 2000s DIY punk, but with less moping and more aggression?
Ryan: Absolutely. [laughs] That’s a weird question. If anything, I’d say there’s more moping.
Todd: So, why is there so much moping in Off With Their Heads’ lyrics?
Ryan: It wasn’t intentional. We just wrote a few songs like that and it seemed to work and that’s what sets it apart from the other dumb pop punk bullshit stuff. And I’m crazy. [laughs]
Todd: In what way are you crazy?
Ryan: I don’t know. At the time—when we started—lots of drugs, then less drugs. Now just getting older, wearing in my brain: “Oh shit.” I don’t ever know how to describe something like that.
Todd: What do you think has most changed from when Off With Their Heads started ‘til now? Someone who’s only a casual fan can still pick up on your thematics: things are pretty fucked, you’re emotionally worn, you’re fucking up.
Ryan: There’s always ups and downs. It never really went away; all the stuff we write about. There’s always something. All that stuff in those lyrics is that day. People think that I’m like that all the time. Clearly, I’m not. I can blow up a shitty day into a big deal. That’s the one thing I’m good at, I think.
Todd: Have you ever edited out a happy song from an album or play list?
Ryan: No. We only have two happy songs and they’re not even that happy. I did ‘em because, “Fuck, alright. Shit’s cool.” And everybody hated ‘em. It’s totally true.
Todd: If you were a woman and you just listened to Off With Their Heads, would you go on a date with Ryan Young?
Ryan: That’s funny, ‘cause my girlfriend I’ve had for about seven months, was a fan of the band before and that’s kinda how I met her. “Why would you have any interest in putting yourself in that situation?” That’s what I said. Totally red flags. And she’s all, “Oh, I don’t know. Whatever. It’s your art.” But now her parents bought the CDs. That’s a whole different story.
Todd: Any feedback?
Ryan: I haven’t heard one word about it.
Todd: Who is in the band this week, and why is there so much turnover? Seeing you guys within two weeks, I’ve seen different lineups of the band.
Ryan: How that works is I just like touring. A lot. Justin just bought a house, so he can’t tour much. We just find people to do it. That’s how we’ve always done it. “Alright, if you can’t go, we’ll just find someone.” There’s rarely ever any hard feelings about it. Mario’s the nineteenth or twentieth member of the band now. Mario played drums all the way from Chicago to here, L.A. It even switches up in the middle of tours. I think it’s awesome. It’s fun playing with different people. It keeps the shit interesting.
Justin: We learned early on that if you don’t have any rules for it, it makes it so much easier. Anybody who feels like they can jump on—carry on.
Todd: Has anybody just flat-out quit?
Justin: Not as fast as we can kick ‘em out. [laughs]
Ryan: We’ve made people quit. That’s all I’m gonna say.
Todd: Ryan, what’s the Japanese character tattooed on your neck?
Ryan: I will never tell.
Todd: Is it Japanese or Chinese?
Ryan: It’s probably Chinese.
Todd: How do you turn hurt into long-term motivation—because most people don’t do shit. Depression is something that cripples them.
Ryan: It still does. But I don’t know what else to do. That’s why I do this. It’s not because I necessarily love being gone all the time but because that’s the only way I deal with all that shit. I guess things are coming to some sort of point here because of how long I’ve been gone.
Todd: When did you two meet?
Justin: We met 2001, 2002? We met in Fargo, North Dakota. We both had other bands and I ended up booking a show for his old band. Somehow that spiraled into Off With Their Heads over the course of a year or two.
Ryan: I think the original plan was to move to Huntington Beach, California.
Todd: Why is that?
Ryan: I don’t know. Doesn’t that sound funny, though? That was the mindset when that band started.
Justin: That was probably day one, before we even started the band, ‘cause that was the mentality: “Hey, you want to go to Huntington Beach?” “I guess. I don’t care. What else am I going to do?”
Todd: How far have you gone to try to limit who gets your limited edition vinyl? I’ve heard you’ve been miffed that people do quick re-sales of them.
Ryan: When we did the limited edition From the Bottom record, we had a record release show for it with Dillinger Four—so there were a ton of people there—and people were buying five at a time; which, at the time, we were like, “Fuck, awesome,” ‘cause we’d sold ‘em all. Then again, the next day, I saw that shit on EBay. “Goddamit. Why’d we do that?” I’ve never really stopped anyone from doing it but I think if we ever do that again, it’s going to be a one-per-person thing.
Todd: How bummed were the Modern Machines when you made that shirt?
Ryan: The shirt said, “Dear Modern Machines, please shut the fuck up. Love, Off With Their Heads.” I worked at a T-shirt shop. They’re not even bad dudes. They irritate me so much when they’re in town. I’d booked shows for them a couple of times and they’d complain about when they played. Then they’d play two hours. But, the reason we did that shirt was because Josh—our other bass player, the red bearded gentleman—we were leaving for tour the next day, we got home, and someone was like, “Hey man, take this acid.” So it’s three in the morning and me and Josh take acid and one of the Modern Machines guys is sitting on the couch, waving his hand in front of our face and going, “Do something visual.” And that’s when it started. “Dude, fuck off. Why do you have to do everything to piss me off?” Josh wanted to kill him. That was his plan. He was on acid. “Dude, we can get away with it.” I was like, “I don’t think we should kill him, man.” But, yeah, they were pretty pissed about that—and still are—but, whatever… Not my cup of tea. I like quiet time.
Justin: Except for the guy who had quit the band. He thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.
Ryan: The drummer—we played in Milwaukee—he saw the shirt and laughed hysterically. “Can I have one of these?”
Todd: What was your last royally bad decision?
Ryan: I know I’m about to make a bunch of ‘em. I know that. [laughs] In Texas we decided, after the show, when we’re all drunk and stupid, to buy ecstasy from this guy named Crack. I never done that before and I think that’s why all of us did it. I ended up playing with a dog’s balls for two hours. Everyone kept telling me, “Dude, that’s really weird. Stop doing that.” I’m like, “No, it’s not weird.”
Justin: Trying to karate chop through a chair, breaking my hand, and never getting it fixed. I wouldn’t do that again. Well, I might.
Todd: Because I understand that you guys are big cat fans, what’s the absolute cutest thing you’ve ever seen a cat do?
Ryan: Well, my girlfriend’s cat—she has a kitten—just decided it wanted to kill itself. This isn’t really cute, but it’s kinda funny. It somehow was on the ledge of the window, wrapped its head around the blind cord, and jumped. Tried to hang itself. So that’s pretty funny. I wouldn’t say cute. It’s fun. Luckily, she was there to save it.
Justin: Again, probably not cute [laughs], but I watched my cat stick its face into a moving ceiling fan.
Todd: How’d it get up there?
Justin: It was sitting on cupboards. First, it stuck its paw in there, yanked that back, and then decided that wasn’t good enough, so he stuck his face in there. He’s still alive somehow.
Ryan: Our thing with cats is not about cute, it’s about stupid and that’s probably why we relate with them so much ‘cause we’re as equally as stupid as the cats.
Todd: So why did you guys burn your merch money at one of the Fests in Gainesville?
Ryan: Uhm, grain alcohol.
Justin: And champagne.
Ryan: That was stupid. But, I mean, it wasn’t that much. That was back when we only had thirty dollars. Fuck, thirty dollars. I throw that out the window these days. [laughs]
Todd: I’ve always wondered about people who say they’re poor and then they consistently smash up their instruments.
Ryan: I used to do that, too, when I was drunk. Nobody would be at our shows. I’d play these seventy-five dollar guitars, brand new, and, for some reason, would break them all the time on purpose. That’s stupid. I don’t even have a guitar anymore. I use our bass player’s so I can’t break it anymore.
Todd: Have you ever, intentionally, been paid not to play?
Ryan: Yeah. Tomorrow. This guy told us to not come to Santa Barbara and Paypalled us two hundred dollars. He said the show would suck and he booked it. “Alright. Cool. Thanks, man.” I like that guy.
Todd: When’s the last time you totally misunderstood a situation?
Ryan: Yesterday, I wake up to my phone ringing and it’s a Denver number. I’ve been getting telemarketing calls from Denver for three years. The guy’s like, “Is this Ryan?” “No.” Click. Rings again. “Fuck off, you douchebag,” and hang up again. Then I get up, we go to the grocery store, and I’m like, “What do I gotta do today? Oh shit, the DenverOnion A/V Club interview.” Var (No Idea Records honcho) calls me. “What the fuck are you doing?” “I’m sorry.” The Onion guy had a sense of humor about it. [laughs]
Todd: Do you think that with the internet affecting music as it has, and being a touring band, that it’s harder to make money as a band than it was ten years ago?
Ryan: It’s a weird thing. Now, we’ve sold a ton of records. It’s over 10,000, which is a lot to us, especially in the downloading age. I don’t ever expect to see money from the label. And no offense to anyone, but labels help, and I wish I didn’t have to have a label. I wish we could just do it ourselves, but there’s good and bad points to it.
Todd: You need the supervision.
Ryan: Var has to keep me in check. That’s probably his toughest job. And I know he pulls his hair out: “Goddamn it. What is wrong with this guy?”
Todd: And you know Var is coming from a good place. He’s not all, “Ryan, we need to move some units here.” It’s more like, “We need to make sure that nothing’s on fire today.”
Ryan: That’s exactly his motive. The internet also works to the advantage of a smaller band like us. Shit, a lot of people can hear it and they’ll come to the shows anyway. If they really like it, they’ll get a shirt or they maybe even buy the LP. It’s got its good and bad points. I’m not going to get all bent out of shape about that sort of shit, at all. I think that’s sort of the consensus of everyone. What are you going to do about it?
Todd: It has fundamentally changed. You can’t belt fight the internet… do you know any skateboarding tricks?
Ryan: I used to skateboard a lot when I was younger. I could kick flip and heel flip. I weigh seventy more pounds than I used to. I could ollie four decks. Nothing cool, but for small town kids; rip shit up. That was fun. I know Todd Congelliere. He was a pro skater. [laughs]
Todd: If you could name a trick, what would you name it?
Ryan: The Lance Armstrong. It’s tasteless and bad. It would involve a dangerous move to the testicles.
Justin: I’d just be an ego freak and name it the Francis.