Heavy music can be surprising. Across America, the stereotype of metalheads being too dumb to pick up a pick-up line is well worn. Those of us who actually listen to the stuff know better, of course. Most of the caveman routine is just a shtick anyway, as Dee Snider, known most notably as the frontman for the genre-bending hair metal outfit Twisted Sister, memorably pointed out in his testimony before the Senate Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1984, when Tipper Gore was trying to get heavy metal categorized as “immoral.” Still, bands can surprise us when their acumen and intellect transgress their routine and become enmeshed with it.
Nothing More is just such a band. Their new record, The Stories We Tell Ourselves, explores sonic and lyrical themes of philosophical richness that would read well in a Master’s thesis…
Who is “the self” and what is my relationship to my self? Can we have a relationship with others if we don’t have one with our selves? How do we “know our self,” as the Oracle of Delphi commands? Have you ever thought about how meta it is to imagine a self that is altogether-separate from our self? Like, are there really two or more of me inside me? Is there a “real me” and a “phony me?” Or is “me” somehow a combination of all of this, my intentions and my desires, my loves and my actions, my fears and my beliefs, my successes and my failures? Is this what we call “authenticity?” I mean, is being authentic a way of cutting through the bullsh-t of our phony selves and letting the “real me” out, or is it owning the fact that I engage in bullsh-t from time to time and that it is just a part of who I am? Is being authentic a meta ideal, or is it the opposite of meta, ultimate resistance to the divided “self” we often imagine occupies our bodies?
Nothing More cuts through the meta like a warm knife through butter. We are our selves – all of it – and until we can accept that, we will never be able to relate to others or the world around us, they say. With songs like “Let ’em Burn” and “Who We Are,” Jonny Hawkins, Mark Vollelunga, Daniel Oliver, and Ben Anderson issue a call to abandon the pursuit of self-knowledge-without-self-love and engage a different project: relationships. Through relationships, we come to know our self; as existential philosophers say, “the ‘self’ is known through the encounter with the ‘other.’” I know me authentically when I know you and can identify where we are different and similar.
This relational project is not merely confined to self-knowledge nor is it singular. Instead, knowing ourselves in relationships allows us to “work on” the parts of us that we are destructive. As the chorus of “Do You Really Want It” proclaims, “Everybody wants to change the world, but one thing’s clear: No one ever wants to change themselves.” By connecting themes of self-knowledge to personal and social issues (“Go to War,” Still in Love,” “Just Say When”), Nothing More weaves a sonically-heavy web of interrelating relationships. We live in a world of complex conflicts and intense divisions, and everyone has an idea of what should be done about it. These ideas are often conflicting, but what if the key to unlocking the doors that divide us is recognition of the way our self-absorption keeps us isolated, keeps us in the dark, keeps us in conflict?
Nothing More certainly thinks so, and the sonic pallet of their excellently produced new record brilliantly reflects this understanding. Blending hooks that could be straight out of pop anthems with hardcore guitar riffs, mathcore rhythms, and perfectly executed balance between clean and dirty vocals, The Stories We Tell Ourselves enlightens as it entertains. We talk to the man behind the lyrical opus, with Hawkins digging deep into relationships, expectation, and one very specific New Year’s resolution.
HM: Tell us a little bit about the recording process. Where did you guys record? Who did you record with?
Jonny Hawkins: We did this record ourselves, just like we did the last one. Meaning that, about six or more years ago, I used some money that was put away by my grandmother for a few college classes, and I bought some speakers and a computer; basically, just a small home studio. And ever since then, I’ve kinda led the way on production. And I met Will Hopkins, who’s now our manager but at the time was a producer. We collaborated with him on a few songs on the first record that I started singing on. Ever since then, we’ve been making records together with him. We record the bulk of it at my studio at home, and then we have a studio and a rehearsal room at a house that we all lived in during the last record.
Basically, I work on vocals and production, and Mark and Ben, the guitar player and the drummer, would go over to the rehearsal room/studio and be tracking guitars and drums, while Will would be in Austin getting mixes ready to go. And so we kinda had this steady flow between all three of us connected through the cloud. We used Google Drive. And we’d just upload stuff, pass it along to the next one saying, “Hey, I need this,” or, “This kind of background vocals,” or, “This kind of guitar part,” so I could pop it into my session. We just kind of work like that most of the time. And then Daniel, our bass player, was in the garage most of the time working on the metal fabrication work that you see onstage. So, that’s how we make our records.
Sounds like a great process. Do you have any cool stories about this recording process?
Yeah, you know, our first single, “Go to War,” was one that – you know, most of our songs take a few months to write. We like to get an idea out real quick, and then let it sit for a while and work on other ideas so that we can come back to it and be more objective, have a fresh perspective on it. But that song was written in about 30 minutes. It just came out super quick.
We went to LA, and we wanted to collaborate with this fellow writer and producer named David Pramik. We were at this AirBnB, and I was going through the end of an eight-year relationship. I was dealing with some stuff, and I got off the phone, and I was angrier than I’ve ever been. I was never one to yell a lot or get into super-big, dramatic fights or anything like that; I’m pretty laid back. But I’d gotten to that point, was on the edge, and we had it out with each other over the phone, and I was just fuming. At the end of eight-years of stuff that had kind of built up – I looked at Mark, and I was like, “Let’s get in the studio now! Play that guitar part you were playing yesterday.” And so Mark started to play it, and I just started singing stuff, and it was about 30 minutes later that the bulk of that song was done. So, some of them came out quick like that and were unusual for us.
Thanks for sharing that. Let’s talk about some of the themes on the record. There seems to be a single, overarching theme of relationships on the record. You seem to be talking about relationships between the self and the other. Then, relationships with society and how political discourses frame that. Then there’s this third layer of relationships between our selves and our self-understanding – who we understand ourselves to be. The album almost frames that as a binary. Can you talk a little bit about that? Am I way off the mark?
I think you nailed it. You probably described it better than I could! (Laughs) I should be interviewing you!
(Laughs) That’s not fair!
Yeah, that’s exactly it (laughs). I was personally dealing with a lot of murkiness and confusion – like, from about the two years leading up to and during the recording process – about a lot of my thoughts about relationships and what they are and should be, and a lot of thoughts about my relationship with my self, what that should be. And, of course, how that all plays into our society as a whole, with songs like “Let ‘em Burn” and stuff like that. They all are reflections of each other.
I really believe that when people don’t have a good relationship with themselves, they can’t really have a good relationship with another person. And then, if they can’t have a good relationship with their self or another person, how can they think that any of their ideas or opinions about what the country should do are really valid? I mean, a country is a giant group of people trying to organize themselves with another country in another relationship which is a giant group of people who are very different. I think life should be dealt with as building blocks, and we work our way up. I feel like most people go the opposite direction, rather than starting with their own self.
And so, for me, we were getting back to the basics on this record, sorting out my own sh-t in my head and my soul. (I was) really figuring out what was something I needed to work on versus what was something that everybody else might have to work on, thinking that the problem is always somebody else. Sometimes we get caught in that illusion.
“I really believe that when people don’t have a good relationship with themselves, they can’t really have a good relationship with another person.”
So if we can kind of dig in a little bit on those relationships – the things that seem to be the material of relationships – on the record. There are lines about safety, fear, being afraid, and how fear forms our relationships. What is the relationship between those themes and the sounds you use to make your records?
I think they’re very interconnected. I mean, it’s almost like when you watch a scary movie and you hear the soundtrack, the sound effects, the noises leading up to whatever action is going on. We try to create in sounds or tones or things like that. We try to zone in on what’s the heart of the song that lines up with those visceral or emotional feelings. And if it doesn’t, it’ll get cut. So they do play an important role with each other.
The press release for the record references Carl Jung and C.S. Lewis, but you guys also use a lot of Alan Watts on the album, and I think some Eckhart Tolle as well. How do you feel philosophy can inform hard music?
In my mind, it’s the most important part, but, on the surface, it’s the least obvious part. For example, I have a few friends who are amazing musicians, much more talented than I am or much more technically precise, but, at the end of the day, it’s not a sport where you have to get the ball across a line and if you score more points you win. I think that art is its own game; it’s a very different game. It’s a subjective, cooperative game in which you can only win in context with other people and society. So, if you play it technically right and you have that sports mentality – like, “Oh wow, I can play my guitar super fast, therefore I’m gonna be successful as an artist,” or, “I can sing precisely like these vocal shows” where they’re amazing singers – it feels kind of heartless. They’re technically good, but it doesn’t make you feel anything.
A lot of bands – (Nothing More) included – have to ask themselves the question: “Why are you singing those songs? What is the point?” Because, sure, it could be another catchy song, make you feel a certain level of feelings. But how is that going to radically alter somebody’s way of thinking, or how their heart is feeling, really connect with them? There are a lot of ways to “win” in that realm and context with other people, but I think that the philosophy is really getting to the heart of “why are we singing this?” “What’s the point?” It’s as simple as that.
What do you hope happens as a result of your record?
I think that I don’t look at the record, most of the time, wanting a specific result. But the result I wanted for me in making the record was to gain clarity. You know that song, “Don’t Stop,” has a lyric: “My New Year’s resolution is to cut through the confusions.” That is a literal New Year’s resolution I made this last year. I had a very fun New Year’s Eve, but I also had a very sobering moment in the month of January where I was by myself and a lot of things sunk in that had transpired in the last two years. I think that (finding) my own clarity about (my resolution) and documenting it – putting words to that process on the record – will allow other people to find their own story or find clarity. I hope that will be the end result: that people will find clarity. Or better communication with people, which will allow for more love and understanding and greater things that we can do.
There’s a line on “Who We Are”: “We are who we are, that’s what keeps me believing.” Can you unpack that a little?
Yeah! There are a few different meanings behind that, since we are a band and we all bring our own stories to the table and we put them into the lyrics.
Me, at that exact moment when we started finishing that song, I had a person walk into my life – actually, the girl I’m with right now. I had a lot of very pessimistic ideas about people and relationships. She was one of those people who walked into my life, and I did not expect it at all. I wasn’t looking for it either. And it blew my mind and broke a lot of the stereotypes I had built out of fear and for safety and protecting my own heart. She broke a lot of those molds in my head.
I think that’s where I drew a lot of my energy and inspiration from in that moment, but there’s also another – let’s call it a mutually inclusive – meaning behind that, which is the band. We met each other when we were kids. A lot of times, as I become an adult and go through experiences that I didn’t expect or foresee, I have the temptation to get jaded and a little hardened toward the world. It’s a reminder to look back and go, “Do you remember who we were when we met?” and that really pure, simple joy and desire to create and make something awesome with each other, which is our music. Trying to never forget that.
And the last part of this multifaceted meaning was a lot of times I was thinking back to the relationship I had with my mom, who was really the number one person who had my back, I think more than anybody alive. I just remember, as a child, feeling that. And as jaded or nihilistic or hopeless a feeling as I can get as an adult, it is nice to remember that simple, clear connection and love with someone who’s got my back no matter what. Sometimes, it’s something as simple as that that’s worth fighting for. That’s a good reminder, especially with all of the stuff in the media right now, with a lot of musicians taking their own lives. I think it’s really important in those moments to get back to roots and connections with people and why they matter.
Well Jonny, thank you so much! This has been a great conversation, and all best to you.
Hey, thanks so much, man! And, uh, I used to read HM all the time when I was in middle school, high school, growing up. So it’s pretty cool for me to do this interview.
Nothing More was posted on October 9, 2017 for HM Magazine and authored by Nathan Myrick.