Interview with The Safes: It’s a weird time to be alive. But when the hell isn’t? By Mike Faloon

Mar 27, 2012

            I’m a teacher by profession. I’ve been teaching for just over a decade. I’ve been able to work in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest in urban, suburban, and rural schools. There are a few things that hold up across time, geography, and population density. One of those is that the children of recent immigrants are willing to work. They could be from Russia, Jordan, or Ecuador—it doesn’t really matter. The relative newcomers I’ve worked with have work habits I envy.
Frankie and Patrick O’Malley have that in them. They’re the sons of Irish immigrants. They, along with their cousin Patrick Mangan, are the driving force behind the Safes. They’re a Chicago band with a classic Midwest sound—Cheap Trick sonics, Replacements outlook, Naked Raygun passion—but in the end it’s all theirs.

            And no one in the DIY underground works harder than these dudes. When they started as a four-piece, there were four O’Malleys in the band. Over the years, two of the brothers left when family life called. Frankie and Patrick have pressed on, recruiting their cousin Patrick to join on bass. They’re lifers, working ceaselessly to get people to hear their music. They put out their own records, screen their own shirts, and book their own tours—whatever it takes. When they couldn’t find a steady drummer to replace their brother Sean, they taught themselves to play the drums.

            What I call a deeply-rooted DIY work ethic, they call common sense.

Frankie O’Malley – Guitar, Vocals, Drums
Patrick O’Malley – Guitar, Vocals, Drums
Patrick Mangan – Bass, Vocals

Interview by Mike Faloon
Photos by Wendy McCardle,

What was it like the first time you heard Black Flag’s “Rise Above”?
Frankie: That was life changing. I went over to my best friend’s house and he had an older sister who listened to a lot of metal, but one day I went over there and he had Damage, which was his sister’s. I remember being like kind of scared by that record cover. I was like—I don’t know—fifth grade and I heard “Rise Above.” When I heard that record I thought, I’m not crazy. I’m not alone. There are adults who are seeing that things are messed up. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone, although I didn’t get the skinhead imagery and the punching the mirror on the cover. That was disturbing, but I identified with the lyrics and the message of the song and not buying into the life—you’re born, you go to school, you get a job, get married. It’s way more complex. That record caught me off guard and it was a good thing. It shocked me. I was blown away by the impact of it.
Mike: That’s the way the Minutemen’s 3-Way Tie for Last was for me. It was a break from what I expected. It was later for me. I was in high school. It didn’t frighten or intimidate me but if I’d been in fifth grade and heard “Rise Above”…
Frankie: It didn’t intimidate me. The image of the cover freaked me out, but the lyrical content of the album made me feel like I wasn’t alone on this planet. I was surprised to hear it. I was happy to hear it. “Rise Above” is a good song for someone who’s being dumped on and they’re not going to take it. This song about triumph, overcoming obstacles. I like “TV Party” and “Six Pack”—the party songs are funny—but like “Gimme Gimme Gimme” or “Depression,” those are real songs. That’s an example of a polarized record. This album was fun, but it was also really heavy and really more raw than anything I’d heard before. This is what life was like if you’re getting beat up on the playground or your parents are fighting. Life isn’t some ideal bubble. It isn’t. I think most people would say the first time they hear something that raw, it has that effect on them.
Patrick: I had that with the Replacements Stink, first time hearing “FuckSchool.” You can do this? You can say this? Bands can do this? I loved it. It was right up my alley. I was lucky because my brothers and sisters would be bringing in all these albums, like Stink or Bedtime for Democracy.
Frankie: That was a big one for me too because I hated school.
Mike:Stink covers it all because it has that and “Goddamn Job,” school and jobs, the thing you’re in now and the thing that’s waiting for you on the other side. Was this on the sly with your parents?
Patrick: They didn’t know about that.
Frankie: They wouldn’t have been down with either of these lyrics.
Patrick: Probably didn’t turn it up too loud where they could hear it.

Mike: I was thinking of other bands with brothers or cousins and the historical record is not kind. The Beach Boys were a great band, but that’s a dysfunctional family. The Kinks were a great band, but those guys hated each other. I’m not an Oasis fan, but they fit the pattern of brother bands that don’t get along.
Frankie: Everly Brothers. Bee Gees.
Patrick Mangan:Jackson 5.
Mike: Exactly my point. These are accomplished acts to varying degrees, but other than the Osmonds, there aren’t a lot of sustained bands with family members that get along. The Clean pull it off, but the Kilgour brothers live on different continents—one brother lives in New Zealand and the other lives in New York. You guys live in the same apartment.
Patrick: We’re around each other all the time.
Mike: You’re around each other all the time and you’ve been in bands together for how long?
Patrick: Since we were kids.
Frankie: It’s because we love music.
Patrick: We haven’t totally matured. I act like a kid still but we’ve grown up a lot. We’ve communicated when there’s a major problem. Frankie’s about resolving things and I’m kind of a hothead and I need my space, but we never cross the boundaries. We’re a team.
Patrick Mangan: Might be because you were raised a certain way. I remember you guys talking about your uncle, my grandpa, saying, “My sons could pummel each other all day long.” They fought all the time, but when dinner time rolled around you were all going to sit at the same table and you were going to talk to each other. There was no being silent about it. You’re passing the food and you’re talking.
Frankie: We fight all the time but we talk.
Patrick: Sometimes people will think we’re fighting but we’re not.
Frankie: They’re like, “Are the O’Malleys angry?” This is just how we communicate with each other. We’ll go from everything’s cool to, like today when I lost my keys, I was like a different person. Patrick’s like, “Dude, relax,” and I’m like, “What are you looking at me like that for?”
Mike: Do you hide the keys on him once in awhile to test him?
Frankie: No one ever wants to do this. You want to avoid me being freaked out because it’s a short trip and it’s not fun when you get there and it’s annoying. We fight about everything, family band or non-family band. Look at the Ramones. Those guys weren’t real brothers.
Mike: Yeah, but I think with the family ties there’s a different depth there.
Patrick: We trust each other.
Frankie: There’s no one I’d rather have listen to a song I just wrote than Patrick.
Mike: Do you feel like a lot of encouragement from the rest of your family or a lot of questions?
Frankie: Oh, no. It’s “Go Safes.”
Patrick: We’re lucky.
Mike: Do you know a Genesis record called And Then There Were Three? They started as a five-piece band. Then Peter Gabriel left. Then Steve Hackett left. Then there was just the trio remaining.
Frankie: Then they got really popular.

Mike: Is that going to happen with you guys? There used to be four O’Malley brothers in the band. Then three. Now it’s the two of you. Is it going to stay at two?
Frankie: If anything, we’d be adding more.
Patrick: And possibly even more family. There are a lot of talented people. Patrick’s brothers and sister are talented and so are our nieces and nephews.
Mike: Have you ever played with your dad?
Frankie: He plays saxophone on Well, Well, Well and he plays on the new album.
Mike: Is that your dad’s main instrument, saxophone?
Frankie: Yeah, saxophone and accordion. He plays the flute, too, and the guitar.
Mike: I know your brothers play music, but what about your sisters?
Frankie: My sister Eileen played guitar for a little while, but she didn’t stay with it.
Patrick: They’re all music lovers. My mom doesn’t play either, but she’s the biggest music lover.
Mike: Speaking of your mom, what’s the story about how she first came to America?
Frankie: She came to America to work at her uncle’s restaurant in Columbia, Missouri and her sister was already there. I think my mom was fifteen when she moved here.
Patrick: She and her older brother took a boat from Ireland to New York, then they flew to Kansas City and their uncle picked them up and drove them to Columbia, Missouri.
Frankie: After being there for a while, they decided to fly to Chicago for a weekend; they might have been sixteen. They got robbed of everything they had when they were in Chicago. They lost everything. I guess they had enough to make a phone call. They called their uncle and said, “We got robbed. What are we going to do? They took our plane tickets and everything.” And their uncle said, “Find jobs.” And that’s how my mom ended up in Chicago.
Mike: How many unreleased records have you written?
Frankie: Five albums that are written, demoed, and sequenced, always subject to change, though. Beyond that, ten albums worth of songs, at least.
Patrick: Most songwriters write songs. Frankie writes albums.
Mike: That reminds me when I went to see the Figgs just before they released their second record, Banda Macho. They didn’t play songs from their first record or Banda Macho. They played songs from what would become their third record, even though they only had one album out at the time. You guys are like that. When one record is coming out, there’s already several albums already sketched out.
Patrick: It’s fun to test the new songs out live. It’s fun to do new songs. See what works.
Frankie: And watch it on YouTube. I’m like, damn, I haven’t even had a chance to demo that song and someone’s put it up on YouTube. That’s the day and age we live in. People must like a song if they go to the trouble. It’s a weird time to be alive. But when the hell isn’t?
Mike: What’s Jeans and Hat Day?
Frankie: We went to a Catholic grade school, and one day a year…
Mike: One day a year?
Frankie: One day a year you didn’t have to wear your uniform.
Patrick: You had to pay money.
Frankie: It was like a dollar and it went to charity. If you paid the dollar, you could wear jeans, a T-shirt, and a hat instead of your uniform. I wore a Cheap Trick T-shirt and my best friend Joey wore a Cars T-shirt. We were in second grade. All the kids were like, “Who are those bands?” And we were like, “You guys are idiots.” They didn’t know good rock’n’roll. “Why are you wearing a Madonna T-shirt?” or whatever. We wore our rock concert T-shirts. Most of these kids didn’t even have records. I would go to birthday parties in early grammar school and I would give as gifts these records that would ultimately end up in me not getting invited back to these birthday parties. For one birthday, I gave Pete Townsend’s Empty Glass record, which has songs about bestiality, homosexuality, drug use, suicide—all these topics. My parents got a phone call: “Do you realize that your son gave this record?” At another party, I gave (Cheap Trick’s) Dream Police and I wasn’t invited back to any of that kid’s parties either because of “Gonna Raise Hell.” His parents would let him listen to the drum intro but not the song because the first line was “Gonna Raise Hell.” Another time I gave someone Tattoo You by the Rolling Stones, which had “She’s My Little T&A” on it. My parents were like, “This is just music; these people are uptight.”

Patrick: Plus, it was probably going over our heads. We were young.
Frankie: All the stuff on the Pete Townsend record, lyrically, I had no idea what he was talking about. As I grew up I was like, “Oh my god, my parents let me listen to this?” That’s the difference. Pete Townsend sang about stuff that was real, but someone who was younger might not understand it until they’re older. But the Black Flag album was point blank. This is what’s up. Direct. That’s what was alarming about it.
Patrick: You were talking about the visual image. I remember the first Ramones album I saw was Too Tough to Die. That silhouette of them; I was scared. Or opening up Bedtime for Democracy and looking at the chaos.
Frankie: That was eye opening. Right after Black Flag, that was the next band we went to. I think my friend Joey bought Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. Then we dove into punk rock big time. People thought Cheap Trick and the Cars were weird and then Joey’s sister shows up with Damaged.
Mike: You were into break dancing, too.
Frankie: Yeah, I was into hip hop until I got into punk rock. Then I stopped break dancing. That’s when we started playing guitar and we were going to have a band and, sure enough, we had a band. We were writing songs and had a demo tape by the time we were thirteen, fourteen years old. We were trying to get gigs at clubs in Chicago and people were laughing at us.
Mike: (to Patrick) Were you part of this band?
Patrick: No.
Frankie: Thank god. My friends were all degenerates.
Patrick: True.
Mike: You didn’t hang out with the same people.
Frankie: Later on we did. I’m three years older than Patrick, so when I was a freshman, he was in sixth grade. I was doing stuff I wouldn’t want him to know about.
Patrick: Even when I was skateboarding with your friends, there was stuff you didn’t want me to know about.
Mike: Did you know what he was doing?
Patrick: No. I heard stories about him. I heard crazy stories, like he was doing heroin. And I was like, “No, he’s not.”
Mike: Did that make you want to do the same things or send you in the opposite direction?
Patrick: I liked skateboarding. When I broke my leg is when I started playing music.
Frankie: That’s when I stopped skateboarding, when I saw Patrick break his leg.
Mike: What happened?
Patrick: It was the weakest thing in the world. I was just riding my skateboard down the street, hit a crack, and broke my ankle in two places and my knee.
Mike: So not anything crazy?
Patrick: No. Earlier in the day, I was flying off launch ramps and I landed—or actually, didn’t land this trick—and it hurt way more than breaking my leg, but I just hit a crack and turned the wrong way.
Frankie: We were doing vert skating and we had ramps. We were getting air and riding walls. We were getting pretty good at it and he hurt himself going down the sidewalk.
Patrick: It was so weak. It was sad. [Pause] And there was talk about a rabbit, that I broke it because I was chasing after a rabbit.
Frankie: I thought you said that.
Patrick: There was a rabbit there. I saw a rabbit.
Mike: This is turning into some kind of myth or maybe Alice in Wonderland.
Patrick: There was a rabbit there but I knew I wasn’t going to catch a rabbit on my skateboard.
Mike: What’s the Monty Python movie with the killer rabbit?
Patrick Mangan:Holy Grail.
Mike: They have to pass this little bunny rabbit in order to pass a certain point, and it’s viscous, flies across the screen and chomps their necks.
Patrick: Breaking my leg was a blessing in disguise. It was right before summer started. I had a guitar and I started learning Cheap Trick songs or Kinks songs. Anything that was easy. “It’s the Way of the World” by Cheap Trick was one of my first songs. I was so young I didn’t know how bad I was.
Frankie: They had a band. Michael (O’Malley, former Safes bassist) was in seventh grade, you were in eighth grade. They played the graduation in the gymnasium.
Patrick: But, by the time we were in high school, my band eclipsed yours. We were a better band. [to Mike] Let’s see what he says.
Frankie: By the time you and Michael and Matt McGuire were in high school?
Patrick: You were writing songs, but we were a better band. We’d been playing longer.
Frankie: By the time Michael got to high school, your band was better than the band I was in at the start of high school, for sure.
Patrick: No, I’m saying at the same time we were a better band.
Frankie: Okay.
Patrick: The WrightCollege show? No?
Frankie: I’m not disagreeing with you.
Mike: But you’re not agreeing either.
Frankie: It wasn’t far off.
Mike: What was the name of the band?
Patrick: We were the Jellnicks. We had this horrible next door neighbor and we would hit the ball into their yard since we were little kids. They would go in their garden and take away these balls…
Frankie: Any that we didn’t find…
Patrick: And they would put them in a bushel in their garage. This guy is a total jerk. Pete Gellnick. We called the band the Jellnicks just to piss him off.
Mike: What was the name of your band?
Frankie: I think we were called Friday And Tonight for that gig. That was a…yeah. That gig sucked for me. You guys did great. You guys were good. The Jellnicks were awesome. I forgot about the Jellnicks. Michael had the big, red hollow body Black Crowes Kramer bass. It had an acoustic guitar body and he brought it to the band photo shoot to piss off the drummer. Matt, the drummer, wanted to have a real band photo…
Patrick: Because someone was going to do an article.
Frankie: So Michael wore a baseball cap, really lame sunglasses, and grabbed the lamest bass. Matt wanted to look like a cool band and Michael made sure they didn’t.
Patrick: We were trying to get on Material Issue’s label at the time. Material Issue had a vanity label called Big Block Records and Matt had a friend, Mike from 92 Degrees, on that label, and we trying to get on Big Block because Material Issue was a big band at the time and we were into them. So he (Matt) wanted this article to be sweet.
Frankie: Michael and Matt never got along. Michael purposely nerded it up. He could just have shown up.
Mike: They should have sold him as the Rick Nielsen of the band.
Frankie: That’s kind of what he did.
Mike: Two cool guys, two nerds.
Frankie: Well, no, they were a three piece.
Mike: Oh, two to one. Lookers on the front. Nerd on the back cover. Only the nerds read the back anyway. Speaking of former bands, who are the Ram Ones?
Frankie: The cover band I had with Dave?
Mike: Yeah.
Frankie: My friend Dave wanted to start a Ramones tribute band and we needed a name. When we were in high school, me and my friend Dave were walking down the hall. Dave had a jacket with Ramones written on the back. The dean grabbed him and he mispronounced the name of the band. “Who’s this Roman Ohs? Are you starting a gang?” And Dave said, “It’s the name of a band. Get your hand off of me.”
Mike: This was the early ‘90s, right? The Ramones had been around a bit.
Frankie: The dean of our school was in his fifties or sixties. He had no idea. The same thing happened to my other friend Dave. When he was in high school, a teacher at his school did the same thing, only he said “The Ram-Ones.” We could have been the Roman Ohs or the Ram Ones. We became the Ram Ones, the tribute band that did two shows. That’s weird that that happened to both of us.
Mike: And it’s an easy-to-pronounce name.
Frankie: And they’re educators. The Ramones have been called the stupidest band ever and deans of schools are mispronouncing their complicated Spanish name.
Mike: And they did it in different ways. You guys have an intensity about music that most people don’t have, and both of you have it.
Patrick: We’re consumed by it.
Frankie: If I’m not practicing music, then I’m writing and recording music. And if I’m not writing and recording music, then I’m out on the road. And if I’m not out on the road, then I’m listening to a record. And if I’m not listening to a record, then I’m watching a music documentary. And if I’m not watching a music documentary, then I’m reading a book about music. And if I’m not reading a book about music, then I’m reading the back of a record while I’m in the bathroom. And if I’m at work, I’m writing a song or working on a drum part.
Patrick: We know exactly what we want.
Frankie: We want to rock’n’roll all night and party every day.
Mike: And scene.
Frankie: Thought of another family band that’s still together and has been around for a long time and get along well: Hanson. They seem happier than they should be. [Pause] Redd Kross. They’re still together. Or, AC/DC. The Shaggs. Van Halen. Wait…
Mike: I think you’ve made my point. Thank you.