Coastwest Unrest Interview by Michael T. Fournier

Coastwest Unrest Interview by Michael T. Fournier

Coastwest Unrest: A Continuous Process

I went back to school in my thirties after ten years of waiting tables in Boston. Switching to rural life in Maine after so much city living was an adjustment aided by music. When I got to UMaine, I met likeminded people at radio station WMEB in Orono. I DJ’ed, and worked first as a librarian then a music director.

Coastwest Unrest’s Songs from the Desert came across my desk in 2009, and I loved it immediately—the trio bashed out acoustic punk with abandon. I booked the band to play the radio station’s annual show in 2010. They were on their first national tour, driving in from Las Vegas. I had a great time hanging out with Noah Dickie (guitar, vocals, songwriting), his brother Josh (drums) and violin player Alex Barnes.

Their 2011 album Old Weird America was even better than their debut—full of confidence, swagger, and dynamics; one of my favorites. Around the time of its release, my first novel Hidden Wheel came out, and when I toured, Coastwest packed the Blackbird Gallery in Vegas (R.I.P.) for what is still one of the best readings of my life.

Since then, we’ve traded shows back and forth through the band’s lineup changes, with brothers Noah and Josh remaining stable members. Coastwest Unrest’s fifth album The Crazed Ones, just released on their own Reclaim Records label, is their best since Old Weird America.

I spoke to Noah on the phone at the end of August 2017, while he was hanging out in the Bay Area.

Mike: Are you there for business? What are you doing?

Noah: I’m spending a couple days in Los Gatos. I’ll be heading to the East Bay on Monday for a couple days. From all the recordings we did on this last album, we made a bunch of friends and met a bunch of people, so I’ll be doing some visiting with them, having lunch with the guy who produced this last record. Not really business, just touching base with people who helped with this last record, and friends with the East Bay.

And in Vegas, it’s so fucking hot there that I try to get out of the city at least every other weekend to get out of the heat. I grew up there. I think it really does make you go crazy after a while. If you stick the whole summer out—road rage, people shooting each other. It’s still a Wild West kind of city. I think it’s been voted most dangerous city a couple times, top five for several years. I think people go nuts from the heat. Now, granted, I can’t pull a study out to prove it, but in my humble opinion from growing up there—it’s not a very intellectual city, so people just got nuts. People turn into animals. I’m half-joking, but you know what I’m trying to say—it gets a little nutty if you spend the summer there in the blazing heat.

Mike: You mentioned the Wild West theme. That’s something that’s been in your records ever since the beginning. I remember you were telling me about old Las Vegas punk rock generator parties. Do they fit into the whole idea of the Wild West you just mentioned?

Noah: Those parties were really brutal desert—dusty, out in the middle of nowhere. Dusty, crusty punks. Granted, that was right when my family moved to Vegas, so I was probably twelve, thirteen. I was on the very young end of those guys who were organizing those shows. These were much older Vegas punks that had been in the city for a long time and were in their thirties and forties.

It was Wild West in the sense that it was in the Mojave Desert, but just thinking back, I don’t know if it was Wild West in general. You were talking about the things in some of these songs. In the theme of L.A. riots. My family lived in L.A. That’s why my family moved to Vegas, or one of the reasons. Total chaos. Seeing that as a boy; my dad owning a business in downtown L.A. My dad was born and raised in L.A., and that was the final straw.

Just from all the traveling I’ve done, I can look at the west and see it. It might be more palatable for someone like you from the east. Like, when you come out to the west, do you sense—there’s a different energy, right?

Mike: There are a bunch of ways that it’s different. How far is it from Vegas to San Francisco? Like, eight hours?

Noah: Yeah, it’s 550 miles, so it’s like, eight to nine hours.

Mike: When me and Bec drive from Cape Cod to Orono, that’s like, five and a half hours if we hit traffic the right way. That’s a long way, you know? You can’t travel much more in New England than five and a half hours. We’re conditioned to be like, “What is that, two hours away? That’ll take all day.” With you guys, you can drive from Vegas to San Francisco or L.A. and it’s no big deal.

Noah: So the openness.

Mike: Yeah! And it terms of the openness, too, you mentioned these generator parties, and the idea of driving an hour or two out into the middle of nowhere is totally foreign to me. If I drive two hours, I’ll be in Rhode Island or Vermont.

Noah: In that sense, there’s that openness, and like I said, at those generator parties, I was very young. I was just fortunate enough to [be involved]. Josh, my brother, he was fourteen. You tribal up at that age, for sure. I knew exactly who my friends were going to be when I moved, and they were the dirty punk rock kids up to no good. So I tribaled up at that age, and they turned me onto these shows.

Coastwest Unrest
It’s crazy to think that I have nephews that age now. They’re so guarded. They don’t even go out and ride their bikes on the street. They ride them in the front yard. I just think back. I can’t even remember how I got to the shows. I was twelve years old! I’d tell my folks, “Fuck the streetlights, I’ll see you in fall!” When the summer kicked off, we ran around, up to no good. Not that these shows were bad—there were drugs, and alcohol, and fights, and stuff—but there was still some positive energy coming through. It wasn’t like Positive Force D.C., or anything like that, where people are out to save the world. It was grimy punks putting on shows out in the desert with generators.

So circling back, I think that probably plays into the idea of the Wild West, but not in the sense of like, Billy the Kid and old school fantasy. It was Wild West in the sense that there were no rules, and we’re in the West, the Southwest. And even the Southwest has a different feel than where I’m at right now. The desert has a different energy to it than even L.A., which is four hours away. To your point, that seems like a lot to you guys, but I’ve done that L.A. drive so many times in my life that it feels like driving to 7-Eleven, around the corner.

Mike: So were those shows your gateway into punk, or were you exposed to it when you were in L.A.?

Noah: I was exposed to it when I was in L.A. I’m the youngest of four, and of all the cousins, the whole family. What trickled down to me was a bunch of great music. In fact, you met my Uncle Larry. He was at one of your readings, in San Pedro. His musical taste—he’s from the hippie generation, but he’s an old punk rocker, essentially. The music he was pumping into my ears from a very early age was punk.

I was already exposed. I was skating. Southern California has a huge skate culture. We were all skate punk kids. We would skate all day and listen to punk rock and hip hop. We’re talking late eighties, early nineties. Hip hop was a big thing, too, because that was punk from a decade earlier. It was pushing. Even at that young of an age, I could feel it was special.

Mike: Hip hop was your punk rock, right?

Noah: There you go! That’s the line (in “Our Punk Rock,” from 2009’s Songs from the Desert).

I was already exposed to punk rock from growing up in Southern Cal. My sisters were ten years, eleven years older than me. They were more into new wave, Joy Division, and Depeche Mode and stuff like that.

Mike: I don’t know if it was the same out there, but here, up until grunge happened, if you were a Joy Division or a Depeche Mode kid, you could hang out with Grateful Dead kids or Slapshot kids and it was all one thing. It was definition through negation: “We’re not wearing white hats, we’re not jocks. We’re all under this umbrella.” Things splintered after grunge, and got a lot more codified at that point. Was it like that out there, too?

Coastwest Unrest
Noah: Yeah. We were skating, listening to everything. It was mixed and we didn’t give a fuck. It was the older generation that would tell me these things: “Punk kids don’t hang out with stoners.” We didn’t give a fuck. We all listened to whatever we wanted to listen to, and everyone was included. Especially in that skate culture—and I’m not a very good skater, by any means. It wasn’t like I was a hardcore skater. But just being in Southern California, surfing and skating, we all listened to everything. I didn’t see any difference in any of that stuff. But I noticed the older generation would tell us those sorts of things. The fighting in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, especially. You know Mike Watt and the Black Flag stories. I wasn’t around; I was in Florida. I don’t know any of that stuff.

When we moved to Vegas, the grunge stuff you’re talking about—there was a darkness throughout that era, some sort of segregation and a weird vibe for quite a while, even at that young an age.

Now, for me, it feels wide open. Especially with the internet. I don’t know how you feel about that, but I don’t see as much tribal stuff.

Mike: When I was teaching in Holyoke, my last semester there, there were a bunch of kids who listened to Gainesville pop punk and Midwest ‘90s emo. For me, those things were identity-defining. Those kids were like, “Yeah, we listen to Hot Water Music and Boys Life,” and that’s just a thing that they do—“This is who I am.”

Noah: Yeah, I see that more, too. Maybe it’s the internet, the way the way music’s consumed now. But it does feel different. But things change. Everything changes.

Mike: With your music, the stuff that you play has always felt inclusive to me, and it’s always been easy for me to point and say, “This is clearly influenced by this or by that,” but it’s not like you’re staking your claim. Kinda like those kids listen to Gainesville stuff and Midwest stuff, you’re like, “This is who we are. This is the melting pot of influences we choose to draw from,” instead of, “We are a Boston straightedge band,” or something like that.

Noah: Yes. I would totally agree with that. Some of that stuff can get gimmicky, too. There’s not a music I don’t enjoy. But management teams can like that. There are certain circles where they want you—I say “they” and it’s probably not even like that—if you can be pigeonholed like that, it can probably help in certain ways. But I wouldn’t do it. I don’t find any interest in that on a personal level. I don’t find anything wrong with it. If you love Joy Division—I hear a bunch of Joy Division knockoffs—I’m sure you do too. If you’re like, “Joy Division is the best thing I’ve ever heard, I’m going to copy that through and through,” cool. Whatever. That’s your thing. I wouldn’t find any interest in that. I love that stuff, but what’s more interesting to me is pulling from those influences.

Certainly a defining moment, talking about influences, last night I was having a drink at the bar next to an Irish lady here on business. We started talking about Shane MacGowan And The Popes. That was a turning point for me—in fact I was probably ten, eleven, and it was strictly hardcore music and punk and even metal. I would secretly put on my Iron Maiden tapes at night in my headphones. I was almost ashamed that I liked Iron Maiden and all that metal stuff. I wouldn’t let my friends know I’m rocking out to Judas Priest stuff.

Anyway, a turning point was Shane MacGowan’s first solo record with the Popes called The Snake. My uncle had bought that, along with fIREHOSE’s Flyin’ the Flannel. Both of those records came out roughly the same time. The Snake—there was something about it, the fact that that was punk. This guy’s a punk rocker. I took it home and listened to it and there was something so profound of just how simple and quiet the songs were. There was something special about it because it’s an acoustic album. There were some songs that have electric guitars, and there are some rockier songs, but just the fact that it was country music but you felt the punk energy.

I was like, “This is more interesting than any of the metal or hardcore records I’ve been listening too for the past two, three months.” There was something about it. And after that, Bob Dylan and all these folk bands that had that punk spirit. I got the whole Dylan catalogue, even at that early an age, twelve years old or whatever. Highway 61 Revisited—it just clicked in me as a youngster, this was basically that generation’s punk rock.

And that’s why when you talk about the influences, you can hear some of the folkier—that tradition of storytelling.

Sorry, got off on a tangent there.

Mike: That’s okay. Tangents are encouraged.

The new record is more cohesive than anything since (2011’s) Old Weird America, I think. But there’s this wide palate of styles and sounds.

Noah: I would agree with that.

Mike: A song like “EPA (Edward Paul Abbey)”, which you start the record with, especially with Josh’s drums up as high as they are, is super punk rock. But you’re singing instead of shouting. And the guitar tone sounds like Wilco or Sun Volt, kinda alt-country. It’s cool that it’s drawing from a variety of sources, but you sound like yourself. It’s hard for me to describe what you sound like. I like that.

Noah: That’s a good thing, right?

Mike: I think it’s good. When you come into the space where you’re working on a new record, are you considering the stuff you’ve done previously? Or are you drawing energy from what’s happening in the world? Do you have lines in the sand where you’re like, “I’m working on the new record,” or do you have songs in progress? How does it work?

Noah: I would say the latter. It’s never-ending for me. It’s a daily ritual or practice to be writing or recording. I certainly don’t have private studio-quality resources at my house, but people are making pop records on their laptops, so I have enough equipment to get by, certainly.

All the recording I do, I don’t look at it as demos—I wouldn’t say I record every day; I certainly write every day, but I record often. I don’t record thinking, “This is a demo.” If I’m going to record something, it’s typically like, “I might use this.” For example, on the new record there’s a song called “When She Starts.” That was recorded at my house, recorded and mixed by me.

And when we got up to Berkeley, I approached that recording as all of them—this might be released. When we came up and did pre-production up here in the Bay Area, the guy that co-produced this record with me, Jim Greer, he felt that song was good enough to be on the record. It’s a finished song. He liked how it was mixed, how it was recorded. We kept it on the side—it’s done, it’s there whether it makes the record or not after we’re done recording—we have one song. And once we got done with everything, it made the record.

So, to answer your question, it’s a continuous process. When things—how did you phrase it?—start to get more line-in-the-sand is when it feels right. We’re going to put out a record, we’re happy with this bunch of songs. But each record’s been different, as well. This is the fifth record we just released. None of them have been the same in terms of how they’ve been recorded or mixed or any of that. So it’s just an evolving, growing thing that makes it interesting for us to go about it that way. There really are no rules. We don’t have a management team telling us what to do or how to do it. We have fun with it.

Mike: How much does your extensive touring influence your songwriting process? When I met you, you drove from Vegas to Orono, Maine. That’s almost as far east as you can go in the country. Does that whole process influence the songwriting?

Noah: Yes. Just because the experiences of touring. You’ve toured. You’ve toured many times, doing book tours and music. Those experiences are priceless and are more experiences to draw from. The more people you meet, the more overall experiences.

I don’t know about literally writing a song about touring—just the life aspect and general aspect, it makes the well a little bit deeper to pull from.

Mike: When you guys came out in 2010, that was the first time you’d been to the East Coast, right? That was on Songs from the Desert, your first record.

Noah: Correct.

Mike: Did you guys have peers who had done big, long tours like that, or did you just figure it out as you went?

Noah: We just figured it out as we went. [laughs] We didn’t have peers doing that, and there weren’t really any bands in Vegas that were—we have a small, loyal local following in Vegas—so on that level there was really no one touring. Our peers weren’t touring or that serious. So, to answer your question, no. But that wasn’t going to stop us. We were determined to make this our life. We didn’t have a network we were pulling from, either. We just said, “Fuck it” and did it.

Mike: [laughs] Punk rock, man!

Noah: There’s only one way to do it: you just have to do it. It was such a blessing. We met you out of that. We met so many great people along the journey. It’s been well worth it.