Dead To Me’s Stampede of the Unscreamed

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Dead to Me plays Kilby Court on July 15 with Off With Their Heads, Riverboat Gamblers and Endless Struggle.

“There’s all these things that we know about, that we should be talking about, but we’re not,” says Chicken, vocalist and bassist of San Francisco’s Dead To Me. While Dead To Me do touch upon common subjects such as war and homelessness in their songs, their takes on such subject matter aren’t your typical “elephants in the room.” He fleshes out their somewhat cryptic references to the largest land mammal in their last full-length, African Elephants (2009), and on the cover of the Little Brother EP (2008). “We’re interested in talking about the things that people shy away from, which are our emotions, our fears, our drives,” Chicken says. “It’s to put that elephant out there and make it be the face of our band and our music.” That is to say, the band adds personal touches, lyrically and musically, to comment on general topics in a way that characterizes their music as something that radiates from their own experiences and knowledge. Since 2003, Dead To Me have been able to tantalize listeners’ senses with an ever-changing mixture of thoughtful punk rock and iconic cover art. Although punk music is often straightforward and declarative, the band has been able to walk a thin line between punk rock explicitness and aesthetic sensitivity—they proclaim the unsaid and substantiate elephants for their musical stampede.

Something that has already been talked about extensively may be former vocalist/guitarist Jack Dalrymple’s departure from the band. In light of people’s comments on Dead To Me’s YouTube videos saying they miss Dalrymple, or the iTunes blurb for African Elephants that subtly mars the integrity of the album with a reference to One Man Army, it’s time to acknowledge the ingenuity the band offers now. Dalrymple, a punk legend, left on the best of terms and by necessity to take care of his wife and newborn child—it wasn’t reasonable for him, at the time, to stay on with DTM. Chicken reminisces on giving lyrics to Dalrymple for him to sing, only to have Dalrymple hand them back and say, “You wrote the song. It’s got to be your voice.” Chicken commends this punk rock veteran not only for his talent and humility, but for pushing Chicken to say what was “runnin’ through his brain.” “He gave me a lot of strength and a lot of encouragement to do this thing,” Chicken says. Dalrymple’s exit in 2009 thereby helped propel Dead To Me into what they have become—a punk band with a fluid, yet recognizable style.

As Dead To Me’s lineup has solidified into its present state, the band continues to create music with the same approach they had when it was just Chicken and Dalrymple jamming after work: “If it’s fun, do it.” The song “X” (a call and response reggae song) on African Elephants, for example, evidences the band’s willingness to shatter any preconceptions one may have regarding their style. “People were like, ‘What the fuck?’” says Chicken. “And it’s just like: ‘Yeah. Deal with it.’ It’s so much fun to play.” It’s not an intro track, but rather the first song on the release. “I like songs, I don’t like parts,” he continues. He tells me that, although he’s impressed by a band’s musicianship in orchestrating an amazing breakdown or weaving seamlessly into an obscure time signature, he doesn’t really detect a song within such displays. Dead To Me, on the other hand, aim to create cogent pieces that convey the soul of a song—one component bleeds into the next to articulate the entirety of a piece. Chicken says, “Sometimes I’ll write a song where it’s the music first, and the music will convey a vibe to me. It’ll set a tone and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, the lyrics should reflect that,’ or I’ll get a phrase in my head.” Lyrically, Chicken doesn’t try to contrive his subject matter based on a preconceived urge to write a song about “love” or “war”—it would seem that the imminent song acts as a mnemonic device that compels him to communicate what is already there: “I can only write about what I know and what I’ve seen. And even though I’ve never been to war, I’ve never been homeless, I see those things in our culture and they affect me, so I write about them,” he says.

Somewhat surprisingly, Chicken cites hip hop as one of his major influences. He and his cousin, drummer Ian Anderson, have listened to it for years, and “love all different types of music.” Chicken says, “I’m always impressed by people that can take complex subject matter and put it into two or three sentences and just knock it out of the park.” Within Dead To Me, songs that come to fruition include potent language: “I saw a girl flip a stroller that was holding her baby sister. Her mother screamed and came running. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen” (“Cruel World”). “Nathan [Grice] wrote that song,” Chicken says. “Every line of that song is one hundred percent true.” The images that arise from their songs provide vehicles by which DTM command our attention and direct us to the emotional sites of the music. Literal visuals additionally aid in the band’s presence—“We always felt strongly about incorporating art into our music,” says Chicken. “Art is supposed to be a big part of punk rock.” DTM uses the image of a Zapatista on African Elephants, for example, to illustrate their compassion for their cause, and incorporate what appear to be sugar skulls on a split with Matter that was released in Japan (ahem).

My jealousy of Japan’s access to this split notwithstanding, Dead To Me is scheduled to have a new album out sometime between the beginning and middle of October of this year—just in time for The Fest. Chicken says, “People are telling me that the songs that they have heard sound more like Cuban [Ballerina] than they do African Elephants.” This, however, could only be a loose classification for a new album from a band with musical interests all over the board, who keeps us on our toes. Chicken knows it, too: “I like that, with Dead to Me, you’ve still got to work for us a little bit. Even if you see what we look like, know where we’re from and hear some of our music, you still don’t know what’s up till you see us live, and hear what we have to say and read our lyrics.”

Also, Dead To Me just finished a European tour where Chicken and the gang have often basked in the countryside hospitality and welcoming venues. “You go to Europe and they’ve already got a bunch of food set up for you—like, a bunch of snacks!” he exclaims. He heralds a continent full of club flats (where the band actually stays in rooms at the venue) and sound guys who tailor the venue to the auditory specifications of the band. “We’re lucky kids, man,” says Chicken. “We’re really, really fortunate that we get to do that. I love every second of it.” Not to say that he isn’t stoked on the good ol’ U.S. of A., though. After coming through Salt Lake City a couple times, Chicken seems anxious to come back to Kilby Court. “We’ve played Kilby Court a few times, and I really like the vibe of that place. It’s a total DIY space … There’s, like, a weird fire pit there and kids burning weird pieces of wood in there that they probably shouldn’t be.” They’re due to roll in on July 15 with Riverboat Gamblers and Off With Their Heads, and will be releasing a tour-exclusive 7”. Chicken identifies the camaraderie that emanates from this tour lineup: “[We] all come from the same place. We’re all just punks in this band that we refuse to give up on.”

With Endless Struggle opening up the show, July 15 should be booked for you. Be ready to engage in Dead To Me’s delivery of songs—not parts—replete with soul and character.

Dead to Me plays Kilby Court on July 15 with Off With Their Heads, Riverboat Gamblers and Endless Struggle.