Off With Their Heads Interview: by Tommy Vandervort

Hear the first chord to any Off With Their Heads song and you’re liable to chug that last beer, throw the bottle against the wall, and jump out of bed with your fist in the air. Fuck you! Life sucks, work sucks, relationships suck. These are realities most people can relate to, and for ten years OWTH has been the soundtrack to our miserable, fucked up lives.

OWTH has unapologetically done things on their own terms. They play shows with whomever they want, record on labels they like, and have served as a shining beacon of  the do-it-yourself philosophy. Lead songwriter, singer, and guitarist Ryan Young didn’t even own a guitar for years, yet he consistently wrote and performed songs that, to this day, make people go fuckin’ nuts. “Die Today”? I challenge you not to scream this song at the top of your lungs.

Recently, the songs have changed a bit. Why? Because that’s what they wanted to do. Ryan Young has evolved, with semi-ballads on the new record Home. The record shows a more talented, sure-of-himself side of Ryan. Home has the confidence of a songwriter who still believes life’s a shitty joke. He’s just become more adept at delivering the punch line. The songs are still in the vein of frustration with shit being as horrible as ever. They still pack as intense a wallop as ever. Change scares people.

If Poison Idea were the “Kings of Punk,” then Ryan Young and company are the malevolent dictators cheerfully screaming “Off With Their Heads,” while decapitating the masses with their brand of punk rock.

Interview by Tommy Vandervort
Photos by Patrick Houdek

Tommy: Ten years ago you started OWTH. What was your thought process behind starting a band?

Ryan: I wanted to start a band that I was in complete control of, Not necessarily every single aspect. I guess, just something that really only needed me as the go-to guy. I didn’t like the idea of having to start another band if a bass player quit. Shit like that. If I’m going to do a punk bank, it’s going to sound like my punk band. Why start over if someone else chooses a different path?

Tommy: Where do you see OWTH in ten years?

Ryan: I’ve found that looking too far ahead is never a good idea. It’s good to set goals for yourself, but you don’t want to make too many huge plans. Focus on one or two things at a time and actually make them happen. That being said, I think that if I survive the next couple years, I’d love to still be making records with this band.

Tommy: Having seen you play to ten people in Minneapolis—your home town—five years ago to selling out Triple Rock and Beat Kitchen in Chicago, back-to-back nights, do you feel like people have finally caught up to how good you guys are?

Ryan: I don’t think we’re necessarily that good of a band. I think we have fun and put out a vibe that gives people an out away from their problems. If you look at OWTH at face value, it’s just another shitty punk band. Once you start peeling the layers off a bit, you start to see that it’s something that almost everyone can relate with. I try to add an element of comedy to it as well. That helps make it seem less serious. Have people caught on to that? I’m not sure. I guess sticking around and doing what I do for ten years has helped draw attention.

Tommy: I know you have a strange, goofy sense of humor, yet you put off a stay-away vibe. Your lyrics are of the “I’m fucked” variety. Which one do you think is a more accurate representation of yourself?

Ryan: Depends what day. Most comedians are pretty weird, fucked-up people. I think I’m a very two-faced person. Not in a shitty, backstabbing kind of way, but in the sense that when I go out to a show or hang out, I’m pretty jovial. That same night, I usually come home and stay up all night being a dickhole. I guess they’re both pretty accurate descriptions of me.

Tommy: Did one type of behavior start as a defense mechanism to mask the other? For example, “I’m fucked in the head and confused, but if I tell a funny story maybe people won’t notice.”?

Ryan: That’s pretty much exactly it. Not all the time, but that’s as close to an accurate description of how I deal with things on a daily basis. I’ve kind of accepted that I’m always going to be a little weird about everything. I’ve just learned that I can channel that into different things and try to spin something out of it.

Tommy: Your style has definitely changed, yet remained the same. Do you get the inevitable “you sold out” backlash?

Ryan: Shit like that only bothers insecure people. I get that kind of stuff every day. I just block it and move on with my day. The term “sellout” isn’t relevant to me anymore. I do what I love doing for a living, help people along the way, and I answer to nobody. When it comes to Epitaph, I’ll just say that I was talked into doing more shit that I didn’t want to do on other labels the band has done shit with. Every single thing that happens with our band now is pretty much run by me. And don’t worry, I still can’t pay my rent.

Tommy: So Epitaph has been an easy transition?

Ryan: Totally. I know tons of super DIY people and they disagree with my choice to go with them, but I have no regrets. There is no one way to do things. I’ve always wanted to be a musician. The way that things were going before was not working. So it was time to try something different. I have tons of respect for people who stick to the same thing the entire span of their band. I just decided to turn my band into my life. I couldn’t put my life in the hands of people who used DIY as an excuse to not give a shit. The same kinds of people run in every group. Sure, some people at bigger labels are scumbags. Do you think that doesn’t exist in the DIY worlds? I’ve met some of my best friends over the last ten years, and they come from all walks of life.

Tommy: Being that you do the majority of OWTH business, do you ever harken back to playing house shows, as opposed to the bigger, seemingly more involved tours you guys do now?

Ryan: I think that’s the misconception. We do house shows with people that we know and have a history with. We did one in Hartford in October. It was a blast. My main reason for not wanting to do house shows was that it can sometimes be hard for that kid who isn’t in the loop to find out about it. I have a better time at a venue, be it a VFW or small bar. You can hear the band and buy a drink. My favorite shows are all ages with the ability to drink, and no threat of it being shut down or cancelled a week before.

Tommy: Do you enjoy the added pressure of basically being in charge of the logistics of running these bigger tours?

Ryan: It’s not really that hard, and it’s even less of a hassle with all the new technology. I can figure out everything I need with my phone. We get the info. from the person doing the show, find out where next show is, and decide where to stop. We go on tour with five people and everyone helps out when needed. I never really thought we were the kind of people who needed someone to do that kind of stuff for us.

Tommy: Do you ever feel like OWTH has become a job and you’re the boss?

Ryan: I’ve always looked at it like that. I know some of the guys felt like it became work and didn’t want to do it anymore. I liked when it started to feel like work. I’d rather work at being in a band than work some job to live paycheck to paycheck. Even though I still make less than minimum wage doing this, I get ten times the satisfaction that I would get doing something else.

Tommy: Hospitals and Home both seem to have a central theme. Is that a conscious decision or just a reflection of your life at the time?

Ryan: Hospitals was written at a time when I was in a very specific spot in life. I was living at the Alamo in Minneapolis and Jackie had just died. I was doing more drugs than I’ve done in my whole life. I was being a shitty person to the girls I dated. I was a shitty person to my roommates. I was a shitty person to almost everyone I came across. It was a hard time. All of the stories on there were true.

Home is a similar thing. I’m in a different spot, but I still can’t figure out where I belong. In my entire life, I’ve never actually felt like I was a good fit anywhere, musically or otherwise.

Tommy: Would you like to elaborate on the death of Jackie?

Ryan: She was my dad’s wife. She was always the voice of reason in our weird family. I was on our first OWTH tour when my sister called and told me that she was diagnosed with cancer. The shitty thing is that I hadn’t talked to her in a couple years because of my dad. We have not gotten along on and off our entire lives. And the thing that suffered the most was my relationship with her.

When I got home from that tour, I went to see her. She had already had a tracheotomy, so she couldn’t talk. She was so happy that I had finally come back to visit, but couldn’t say it. From that point on was the most heartbreaking two years of my life. I had to watch her get worse and worse. I watched her go through surgery after surgery. I would go to the hospital and sit holding her hand until she fell asleep. It didn’t seem real. For the last two weeks of her life she was in hospice care. It was really hard for my sisters and me to go to that place. The last time I saw her was before OWTH played a show at Arise Books in Minneapolis.

The following day, there was a benefit that some of my friends threw to raise money for medical bills. In the middle of a silent auction, my dad got a call that she was not going to make it through the hour. He split to go say goodbye. It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t bring myself to go with.

Her funeral was in Princeton, MN. I remember sitting through one of the most embarrassing ceremonies I’ve ever seen. Some dipshit screaming about flaming horses coming down from heaven to carry her away. When she was carried out, I walked with my hand on my dad’s shoulder. He cracked a joke and immediately broke down crying. She was forty-five years old. I still haven’t gotten over it, and am not entirely sure I ever really will. She was always impressed with the things I did, liked the music I made, and thought that I could do better than just working and struggling to raise a family like they had. Knowing that has been my driving force in what I do. I’m pretty sure she would be the biggest OWTH fan out there if she were still around. At least I hope so.

Tommy: Did you come from a very structured household?

Ryan: I came from a religious household. Single mom. A shitty dad who would try and pit us against my mom. He used to tell us specifics about her infidelity and shit like that. I thought he was really cool as a kid. He totally wasn’t. To give an example, we weren’t allowed to watch The Simpsons. It was too irreverent.

Tommy: How much of a role has organized religion played in your family?

Ryan: In my opinion, it completely destroyed any chance of my sisters and me having a real relationship with our parents. I remember my mom forcing me to go to Wednesday night Catholic classes for years. I told her that even the teacher thought I should explore other options. She said that without the Catholic Church in my life, I’d have no foundation and be lost.

She didn’t understand that one of the biggest mistakes human beings can make is to trying to force a belief on another. On larger scales, it causes wars. So on this smaller scale, I declared war against that church. The same church that tried to hide a pedophile, turned away a homeless man at a soup kitchen for refusing to pray. I hated them then and still do to this day. I never felt like I needed ancient scriptures to tell me how to treat people right. I don’t scam money from people, and I certainly don’t rape kids and try to sweep it under the mat. I guess I’m at least two steps above them.

Tommy: Do you talk to your parents at all anymore?

Ryan: I haven’t. I remember the last time I talked to my mom, we were on tour with Dropkick Murphys. I told her things were going really well and all of the cools things we had accomplished. She gave some shitty smirk/grunt where I could literally hear her eyes roll. I told her “Well, it’s been really fucking great talking to you.” That was the last time I spoke to her.

She’ll occasionally send a Christmas card or something with some shitty scripture in it. I just throw it in the trash. My dad is just too depressing and selfish to bear getting through a conversation with. He needs to see someone. I’ve heard him threaten to kill himself at least three times. It got worse after Jackie died. His problem is that he can magically turn everything towards himself. My sister in Tennessee is the only one of us that still puts up with him. I’m not sure why. She just told me a story of her asking his advice on a couple of boys almost sexually assaulting her nine-year-old daughter. His response “My shoulder hurts today.” Yeah.

Tommy: Do you still seek approval from them? This is an ingrained emotion in ninety-nine percent of people.

Ryan: I think I gave that up a long time ago. It is ingrained in everyone to some degree. I’ve moved past that. Now I just want them to understand how terrible they were—and are—to us. I guess I just want them to hurt a little bit. I suppose that’s not very cool of me.

Tommy: I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, just ignoring people seems to drive them more nuts than screaming “fuck off.”

Ryan: That’s true to some degree. It really depends on the situation, though.

Tommy: Do you think you’ve gotten better as a singer/songwriter?

Ryan: I think that I’ve tried harder. Whether or not it’s better, I’m not sure. As far as singing, yes. I learned how to control my voice a bit better. Hospitals was a time I was just learning. From the Bottom, I was being insecure, trying to gruff up my voice because I didn’t think I could sing. The last two records I’ve backed off a bit but are, to me, the most intense.

Tommy: Do you have a specific writing process?

Ryan: There has never been one specific way. Sometimes Just Francis and I would collaborate; sometimes I would just come with a finished song. I usually come up with what I feel is a clever line and try to build around that. It’s the best way to make sure I write something meaningful to myself.

Tommy: You had some throat issues a couple years ago. What exactly was the problem?

Ryan: I went to a doctor because my throat had been hurting for about a year. You could see a swollen lump when I opened my mouth. Doctor said it could be nothing. Worse case scenario: lymphoma. Either way, I needed surgery to remove it. It turned out to be chronic infection, no cancer.

Tommy: Did this influence you to try and learn to control your voice more?

Ryan: The doctor said I wouldn’t sound the same after surgery. I think it actually helped a bit. It had nothing to do with my vocal chords so it didn’t have super dramatic effect either way.

Tommy: You infamously lit your merch money on fire at Fest while drunk on grain alcohol with Paddy. Are those self-destructive tendencies easier to subdue now that you’ve gotten older?

Ryan: Well, it’s much easier to light your merch money on fire when it’s only thirty dollars. I watch videos of that kind of shit and wonder how I have any friends at all. Those were certainly different times. I’m still friends with all those guys, so they must have actually liked me. I think that’s a question better left to my band mates. I can tell you all day how I’ve changed. They might tell you some stories, though…