Dead Bars interview by Megan G. Razzetti
There is no clear genre to squeeze the solid, raw sounds of Seattle-based Dead Bars into. They have created a unique blend of music—intense vocals with well-planned melodies—pulling from their punk, screamo, and hardcore histories and captured a unique sound that have set the band apart from the rest. Sonically, the gravely-raspy vocals of John Maiello tied into the rest of the band presents a close resemblance to Leatherface and The Tim Version. The band’s latest release Dream Gig takes the listener on a journey through the life and times of Dead Bars in the most conceptual way possible. Starting with a “Overture” representing the songwriting process, the record turns into a collection songs about of missed connections, as heard in “Earplug Girl,” and ultimately ending with the realization that no matter how tough life gets, everyone has a dream. This record also provides one of the most positive approaches to everyday problems, such as getting older or friends growing apart so much that they don’t include each other in life-changing moments. Self-proclaimed “aging rocker” and lead vocalist, John Maiello breaks down the influences behind Dream Gig and encourages everyone to “Keep on Dreaming.”
The first time I saw a Dead Bars set was at Awesome Fest X in San Diego. I was captivated by the amount of energy John, John Oddo (bass), C.J. Fredrick (guitar), and Elliot Thordarson (drums) brought to the tiny Hideout bar. They showed that they truly wanted to be there as they played a powerful set which got the crowd excited for the fun that lie ahead that weekend. Since then I’ve kept Dream Gig playing on repeat because the little earworm they successfully planted during that first show has never left.
Interview and Introduction by: Megan G. Razzetti
Photos by: Eden Kittiver
Megan: Can you explain what Dead Bars means? Are you referencing someone or something?
John: So the band name came out around ten years ago. I always liked to just go to smaller neighborhood bars to hang out, but when you’re twenty one years old, all your friends like to party and go to bigger places where there are tons of people. I just remember saying out loud, ‘I don’t want to go to a bar where there are tons of people. I want to go to a dead bar.’
That name just stuck with me. I thought it was a good name for a band because I like how it sounds, but also it’s about the kind of environment I prefer. When I started writing songs, I realized that they were about some of that type of environment. They were about being introspective on solitude but also about mind-altering substances and trying to get through stuff. The name made sense for the type of project we were doing once it was all put together.
Megan: So would you say this is more reflective of your personality?
John: I think that I need to be comfortable in order to be in a place where it’s a big party. I do like going to parties and more vibrant environments, but they also make me really nervous. For me, I think Dead Bars is a lot more near my real personality. A party persona guy, or whatever, isn’t really me. I mean that’s just what might come through from playing—doing punk rock, playing shows, and being a singer in a band. I definitely like the attention when it’s in that environment, like playing a show. I don’t really like attention when it’s not in a band environment. I’m probably more of an introvert but that contradicts itself the second you’re a singer in a band and you get up in front of hundreds of people.
John: I have an interesting way of looking at my personality.
Megan: Is that what you just explained or is it deeper than that?
John: No, I think that sometimes I feel that I am two different people. I feel like part of me, the real me, is that dude who’s out there on stage. You don’t start a band and want to go on tour and play shows if you don’t want attention. In some deep down way, you want people to recognize art or you want to do something for other people either to make them feel good or yourself feel good. But, really, I am also kind of a quiet, shy person until I’m friends with people and can express myself a little bit more.
Megan: When did you originally start playing music?
John: The first band I was in, where we wrote songs and played shows, was when I was fourteen. We were called naciremA, which is American spelled backwards. We spelled it with a lowercase n and capital A at the end. It was a good first band to learn how to play with people and it was—I would say political but not really—we were fourteen years old, so what do you really know? That’s when I first found out about all this stuff associated with punk and started developing ideas from that. From that, I got more into the screamo- type stuff in high school around 2001 to 2005.
Megan: You were in a hardcore band called Mi Barrio. What was that about?
John: I started that with some friends after high school. I don’t know why they wanted me to be the singer because I was drummer for the other bands I was in. I would write down some words and tell my friends that I wrote some lyrics and they just asked me to be the singer. Essentially, we were never a real band. We just got together, wrote some songs, and played some shows. I just played a show with them when I was back in Jersey. We will get together and play like every three years. We also have a 7” that’s out, also on Bandcamp, but we were never a real band.
It was cool because it was an introduction for me to being a frontperson but, also, it was definitely a hardcore punk band so there wasn’t a focus on singing, melodies, or hooks. I really like writing earworm-type songs, the stuff that will get stuck in people’s heads, and the band was never that. It definitely gave me confidence to do Dead Bars later on.
Megan: So you grew up in New Jersey. What was it like growing up there? How did you find punk music?
John: When I was really young, like seven years old, I got the Green Day Dookie tape. I heard “Basket Case” on the radio and I thought it was the best thing I had ever heard in my entire life. It was so amazing and I convinced my mom to buy me the cassette. I listened to all those songs. That was my first introduction to punk, but I didn’t know it was called punk. I just knew it made me feel good.
Then my friend’s brother was in a local band called, Hidden In Plain View. They eventually got signed to Drive-Thru Records.
Megan: Oh, right. I know them.
John: He was the original drummer for that band and they would have band practice at my friend’s house. I would be over there while they were writing songs and I was like, “Whoaoah, this is amazing. There are people who are doing it.” I went to a couple shows and watched these local bands play. That was the first realization I had that you can start a band and people will come out. That was the first time I saw that that was possible.
Growing up in Jersey around that time was a pretty interesting time because all these local bands started getting signed and were on TV.
John: Right, so picture me as a thirteen-year-old kid and my friend is in Hidden In Plain View. I go to one of their shows with bands like The Starting Line, Midtown, or Thursday or shit like that. They would just be playing with these local bands where hundreds of people would show up but they didn’t have records and definitely weren’t going on tour. They were all just local bands.
Then, literally, one year later, during my first year of high school, I turn on MTV and there’s The Starting Line on TV. There’s Midtown on TV. There’s Thursday on TV. It’s all these bands that just became “real bands.” So, as a fourteen-year-old kid, in a matter of one year I saw that you can actually do something. You don’t need to go to L.A. or get a big record deal, that you can just go be a band and end up on MTV. It was so crazy to me. It really changed my perspective—I think more than other people—because I saw it happen so fast.
It also really motivated me to do stuff because those bands were not much older than I was. It didn’t even matter to get signed or become rich and famous. I just saw people from my community going on tour all over the world. The experience opened my eyes to the possibilities probably more than other kids who grew up in other places because I was right there watching it all happen.
Megan: That’s really awesome—because a lot of those bands I grew up with in my emo phase—The Starting Line are one of my favorite bands. I didn’t know that you had seen them pretty much progress into what they became.
John: I was also getting into more hardcore and punk stuff like Refused, The Bouncing Souls, and Strike Anywhere. By default, I got into The Starting Line and stuff like that. Even though it wasn’t my favorite type of music, I still listened to it because I was excited for my local scene.
Megan: Speaking of community, I noticed you guys are always doing something to give back to the community, such as doing a benefit show for Razorcake. You’ve also done a Planned Parenthood benefit show with Ramona. Can you go into how you guys essentially give back?
John: When I first started this band, I really didn’t want it to be political at all. I still don’t want it to be political. I think there is a time and place for certain things and bands that line themselves with certain political movements is fine, but I also think it’s awesome when bands are just bands that are here as an escape. I don’t want you to think about all the fucked up shit that is going on. I want you to just have fun for thirty minutes and party. That’s what I wanted this band to be.
For benefits, I view it more as helping people in my community rather than helping a particular cause. In terms of a Planned Parenthood benefit, for example, that was my friend Malia, who is super passionate about women’s issues and human rights really. When she asked me to play, there was no question. Of course I would, because I’m there to support my friend. It’s all about friendship, doing the right thing, and supporting the right people and the right causes. I definitely would say that we are aware and conscious of our community. We’re just not making political statements, I guess.
Megan: Totally, I get that. You always reference being an aging rocker and mention it in your song “Dream Gig.” What exactly makes you one? Are you doing things differently now that you’re thirty?
John: The aging rocker thing started off as a joke in a couple of other interviews, but that was C.J. Fredericks’ Tinder profile when he was single a few years ago. I didn’t even know what Tinder was and he showed it to me. It had his profile picture and his biography was, “I’m an aging rocker, just trying to make it in this world.” It was something like that. At least, that’s what I remember it being. That just stuck with me because it was hilarious. We’re not old by society’s standards but the point with that song was trying to make was it doesn’t matter how old you are. It matters how you’re feeling at a particular point. This can be with music, school, relationships, or it can be with work where you just feel like out of place.
That’s all I was getting at. My friends; —most of them are getting married, having children, buying houses, or are on different paths. I feel like I am the same person I was when I was fifteen. I don’t really think that I’ve changed much in terms of my outlook and especially in the way I think about music. The way that I saw with that song “Dream Gig” in particular is that at that point I felt I was too late for anyone to get what we were doing, but we were going to keep dreaming.
Megan: I was going to ask you about your “keep on dreaming” philosophy. You seem to use that a lot. Is it just like, “Hey, keep going,” or a peace and love type thing?
John: The way that I see it, music is probably the best thing in the world. Being in a band is such a great way to write and play music to share with people. I hate getting looped into the songs being downers. They’re supposed to be uppers, and they’re just supposed to be real. They’re being real and honest. There’s a lot of shit that’s fucked up and goes wrong. I just write about all those things and “keep on dreaming,” to me, is like I’m not worried about the next year or five years with this band. We’re going to be a band until I die is how I see it; like this band is never going to stop. I feel we’re a bit misunderstood and that we haven’t found the right scene.
Megan: Yeah, I’ve generally noticed that people don’t know how to describe what you’re talking about or what your music is like. Is that what you mean by people misunderstanding you?
John: That is exactly right. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I guess it’s a good thing in the long run. If you put on a Dead Bars record, you can’t say it sounds like any other band. No one is going to mistake it for something else.
Megan: When I first saw you guys at Awesome Fest X, I was really surprised and blown away by the energy in the set. It was very different from the bands I saw that entire weekend. You guys definitely stand out in that aspect.
John: If you take all the lyrics to “Dream Gig,” I’m putting out all this stuff into the world. Some people don’t get it, and some people do. I’m probably giving up a lot to do this but for me it’s all worth it and one day it’s all going to work out. Not that it hasn’t already, but the best way I can describe it is that Seattle is a very “cool” town and we’re not a “cool” band. I’m friends with a lot of cool people who are running the DIY shows or are the opening band for big bands. When I run into some of those people and they’re like, “Hey man, I’ve got that ‘Earplug Girl’ song stuck in my head, that’s a fucking really awesome song.” It’s like I just converted somebody.
Megan: You’re like, “Yes, it worked!”
John: Exactly, and that’s all that I am trying to do. I’m trying to write cool songs, put a smile on people’s faces, get a good buzz on, and move on. That’s all.
Megan: The Dream Gig record reminds me of a concept album because the songs all relate to each other. There is a good flow of how you organized the record with the title track at the end, tying everything together. I love how those songs all make sense.
John: You’re definitely right that it’s supposed to be like a concept album. It’s supposed to take you on a journey from front to back. It starts off with a piano intro and that’s like me sitting down at my house with a guitar trying to write a song. Then the record goes into stories about everyday shit and then it ends with the idea that starts off in the beginning with the piano melody. So you’re totally right and I’m glad that came through, so thank you for saying that.
Megan: Have you referenced any songs, bands, or artwork and hidden them in your records before that nobody has seemed to notice?
John: The album artwork has a picture of a show poster on it and it’s the poster for the dream gig. On that poster the opening bands are—I don’t think anyone’s commented on it—but they’re two defunct Jersey bands from ten to fifteen years ago. They were me and C.J.’s band growing up. The other band that’s opening the dream gig is called Sharky, a local band that’s from here. I also wrote a song called “Sharky’s My Favorite Band.” That’s on the director’s cut of the record. We thought it would be funny to think about who would play the dream gig. It would really be awesome if it was Weezer, The Bouncing Souls, Guided By Voices, or shit like that, but that’s no fun to put them on the poster. They wouldn’t be opening up for us.
Megan: That’s really cool though, like an homage to those bands.
John: It’s like a thank you almost. Thanks for inspiring us. We’re not forgetting about you. I definitely would not be here if it wasn’t for them. The other band I put on there is a band called Face First and they were my favorite band from Jersey when I was a kid. I definitely would not be here if it wasn’t for them.
Dead Bars on Instagram: @deadbars