Wednesday, March 21, 2012

House Boat Captain: An interview with Grath Madden

If 30 is the new 16, Grath Madden may be the poster child for his generation. The 33 year old perpetually under or un-employed temp worker with a bachelors degree that took him nowhere, passes his time smoking pot, reading comic books, and watching too much television. And much like the protagonists in his comic book collection, Grath has an alter ego of sorts. Moonlighting by playing in punk rock bands, or at least when he feels like it, he has written, sang, and played guitar on one of the best albums of 2011, but that’s not gonna help him one iota when he ends up in line to collect unemployment.

While he may be low man on the totem pole at his workplace, there's a subgroup of a subgroup of a subgroup that sees Grath Madden as somewhat legendary. He cut his chops fronting The Steinways, a hugely influential and revered part of New York's 2000s pop punk scene. After The Steinways imploded, Grath went from writing short cutesy Steinways songs without choruses or refrains, to short self-loathing songs for his new band House Boat (also without choruses and refrains).

Rounded out by legendary punk drummer Mikey Erg, former Off With Their Heads guitarist Zack Gontard, and Grath’s former Steinways band mate Azeem Sajid on bass, House Boat has carved their name among the list of best new punk rock bands going today. I spoke to Grath about his bands, his life and The Biggest Loser Australia.

D: Where are you originally from?

G: Born and raised in Baltimore.

D: Aren't the Madden brothers from Good Charlotte from that area? Do you have the misfortune of being related to them?

G: Haha, yeah, I think they are from somewhere in Maryland, thankfully no relation.

D: From reading the autobiographies of Robin Quivers and John Waters, I've got the idea that Baltimore was a seedy place for a kid to grow up in. Was that your experience?

G: I moved to Parkville, Maryland when I was 12, so my first hand shady Baltimore experience is pretty minimal. I never really looked at it as any shadier or sketchier than anywhere else. I mean, there are some awful, awful neighborhoods that I wouldn’t feel at all safe in, but I spent most of my time growing up sheltered in Catholic schools and all-boys private schools, surrounded by rich white pieces of shit.

D: I take it you must have hated Catholic school. Did you get in to trouble a lot for having a smart mouth?

G: Catholic school was way better than what came after. At least there were girls in Catholic school. I was a pretty enormous nerd, so I didn’t really start to get lippy with teachers until I was like 17 or so. But by that point, yeah, I was pretty fucking obnoxious. I got a detention for “casting a spell” on my English teacher.

D: Did you go to college, and if so what did you major in?

G: I went to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. Majored in film. Now I’m a temp receptionist. I wonder if I made the right decision?

D: Did you work at all in any position of the film/television/commercial industry?

G: I did some production assistant work when I first moved to New York, and I hated it more than anything else I’ve ever done ever. It’s amazing to me how much bullshit people will put up with just so they can “work on a movie/TV show.”

Honestly, I didn’t really stick around long enough to deal with anything other than nothing to do and really shitty hours. But the tone for that shit is set right off the bat, “You are working on a television show, and you should feel HONORED to give up 16 hours of your day!” The magic of being a part of a British dating show wore off in about 4 minutes.

D: When did you first move to New York?

G: I moved back to Baltimore when I got out of college, then a room in an apartment full of friends of mine opened up in Queens about a year later, so I jumped on it. I really didn’t have a reason for coming here, but most of my college friends were here, and I was really into what was going on pop punk wise in New York/New Jersey (bands like The Ergs!, The Unlovables, Dirt Bike Annie, etc.), at the time.

D: Do you remember the first time you saw The Ergs! and met Mikey?

G: I either met Mikey at an Ergs! show in Kutztown, PA, or a Dirt Bike Annie show at North Six in Brooklyn. I can’t really remember which came first. The first time I saw The Ergs! was at that Kutztown show. I got their first 7” in the mail on my 21st birthday, and it was pretty much the most exciting thing I’d heard in a couple of years, so a few weeks later, I found myself driving through Pennsylvania to see them.

The first time I really remember hanging out with Mike was at a big show Eric Peabody put on a few months later. After smoking a billion joints with members of Dirt Bike Annie, I stayed up way too late nerding out on pop punk records with Eric and Mikey. I was like, “this fucker’s a bigger pop punk nerd than I am!” I’d always been pretty isolated, punk rock wise, so it was awesome to finally meet some folks around my age who were just as geeky about this shit.

D: How did you first meet the other members of The Steinways?

G: When I moved up to Queens, I knew that Jon Whoa Oh (founder of Whoa Oh Records) and Chris Grivet were nerdy pop punk dudes that lived in the neighborhood, so it wasn’t long before they were showing me around and taking me to Queers shows and what not. Michelle responded to a “hey, join my band” thing that I put up on a message board, and I was like “Whoa! A cute girl!” So yeah, she was immediately in.

The band was originally me on guitar, Grivet on drums, Michelle on guitar and Jon on bass. That was probably the line up for about a year, and man were we shitty. Something needed to change. Jon had the misfortune of not being a drummer or a really cute girl. Michelle switched to bass, and Azeem joined in 2005 or maybe the end of 2004. He had been in The Widows, who played their first ever show at The Steinways first ever show.

D: Were The Steinways the first band you were in?

G: I played in a band called The Kevins right before college in Baltimore and a band called Steve McQueen while I was in college. Neither were really “real” bands, more assemblages of friends who I’d begged to play music with me. Neither band recorded anything, and between the two, we probably played like 12 shows.

D: Was the first tour you did with The Steinways what you'd expected it to be?

G: The first one was great. We went with The Unlovables, Zack Gontard from Off With Their Heads filled in on guitar for them, it was a fun bunch of folks to be out with. The four of us that would eventually form House Boat spent most of the tour together in the “smoking car,” so that was cool.

D: You've said most of the low points of The Steinways revolved around alcohol. Can you elaborate at all?

G: Haha, did I say that? It’s 40,000% true. If you’ve seen The Steinways or House Boat or whatever bullshit I’ve done, you know that I like to talk on stage. That plus a massive amount of alcohol can lead to mistakes. I’ve said a lot of dumb stuff, and every once in a while I say some dumb stuff that makes someone upset.

D: Anything you'd care to repeat?

G: Not really!

D: When I was doing some research before this interview, I found The Steinways have a page on of all places. It says you played a basement in Chicago where members of Screeching Weasel used to live. What's the story behind this?

G: I forget how it got set up, but the Chicago stop on The Unlovables/Steinways tour was Jughead’s basement. I think Dan Vapid was living there at the time too. It was pretty fun; we barbecued and hung out watching “Some Kind Of Monster” in the living room and then played a show that night. I forget if The Methadones played, but Even In Blackouts definitely did. There are clips on youtube of The Unlovables and us from that show.

D: What was everyone's opinion on Some Kind of Monster?

G: Well, it’s more or less the best movie of all time, so we’re obviously all very fond of it. I highly recommend the deleted scene with Ja Rule to anyone who’s foolish enough to have not checked it out already.

D: Yes the recording of "We Did It Again"! I love how when they're recording it, Ja Rule (or someone in his posse) says it's gonna be the next "We Are The Champions" and talks about how he sees it getting played every time the Lakers win a title. Metallica bopping their heads to show they're down with the rap part is great too.

G: Yeah, it’s easily the best song I’ve ever heard in my entire life.

D: Back to the subject of Screeching Weasel, The Steinways were joined on stage by Ben Weasel in 2007, how did he become aware of the band and meet you guys?

G: I don’t really know how he came across us, but he just kind of contacted me one day and asked if we’d maybe want to play some songs with him at Insub Fest. I definitely had to read the e-mail like five times before I really understood that, yes, the dude from Screeching Weasel wants my really shitty band to play my favorite songs ever with him. That whole thing was really fun and really awesome for all four of us.

D: At that point did you really feel The Steinways were "really shitty"?

G: I don’t think there was a point at which I DIDN’T think The Steinways were really shitty. That probably had something to do with how shitty we were. I was definitely nervous about playing with Ben because I never thought the four of us were particularly good at playing our instruments together at the same time.

D: Have you talked to Ben since then? Is the artwork of the new House Boat album a slap at him?

G: I haven’t talked to Ben in a while. I think it’s a major bummer that there’s been so much bullshit, gossip and nonsense surrounding him over the past few years, but it sort of seems like that’s what he’s after to a certain degree. I would’ve loved to do some more stuff with him, but we approach music from way different angles, so anything we’d talked about at first fizzled pretty quickly. He’s one of my favorite songwriters of all time though, and that definitely hasn’t changed.

The album art definitely isn’t supposed to be a big “fuck you” to Ben or anything. It was kind of just a dumb idea that grew out of some drunken conversations at a show we played in Philly a couple of years ago. When we recorded the record and came up with the artwork, all that South by Southwest bullshit hadn’t happened yet, and there was way less “controversy” surrounding Ben. I feel like the cover seems more pointed now that that shit’s happened, but, yeah, it’s just a dumb joke.

D: So there were talks about doing a band or album with him?

G: We talked real briefly about maybe doing something together, but never to the point that we even really figured out what that thing would be. I’m probably not well suited to be working with anyone whose musical career is an actual career.

D: Since The Steinways breakup in 2009 how many one offs has the band reunited for?

G: We did a set at a show in New York a few years ago that was the original Steinways (me, Michelle, Chris and Jonnie Whoa Oh), but the only real “reunions” we’ve done were Insub Fest 2010 and last year’s Don Giovanni showcase. We’ve been asked to do a couple of other things, but the Don Giovanni show was a train wreck, and I don’t think any of us are super eager to revisit that. Then again, next year is the 10th anniversary of the band….

D: You mentioned earlier that you thought The Steinways were shitty; do you consider House Boat shitty?

G: Nope, not really. We’re not much of a live band, but that’s more due to the fact that we play together like three times a year and have had two full band practices over the course of our existence. But this is pretty much my ideal scenario, band wise. I like our records, and I couldn’t pick better guys to play with.

D: Why use Zack, a guitar player from Minnesota, for a band from New York?

G: The whole point of House Boat, for me, was getting to play music with whomever I wanted to, and those people happened to be Mikey, Zack and Azeem. When the band started, Zack was more or less always on tour and Mikey was also living in Minnesota. I definitely never planned on us recording and playing as often as we have. I’m pretty happy with how it’s all worked out. Zack’s actually in Florida now, and Mikey floats back and forth between Jersey and Queens, so we’re actually geographically closer than we ever have been.

D: Do you know why Zack left Off With Their Heads?

G: I don’t really want to speak for him, but I can definitely say him leaving that band was amicable, un-dramatic and all that good stuff. I think he just wanted to not tour all the time and do more normal person stuff. He’s in school in Florida at the moment.

D: So if you could have the lifestyle of someone who squeaks by from constantly touring instead of working conventional jobs would you take it?

G: Nope. I kind of hate touring. Well, that’s not totally true, but I get really antsy and not stoked to be on the road after a week or so. I think doing it every night for a couple of months would suck all the fun out of it for me. Doing a week or so at a time once every year or so is pretty ideal for me.

D: A lot of House Boat songs deal with underemployment. Do you ever consider going back to school and getting a better degree?

G: I’ve been temping for like 8 years at this point. I’m either that or unemployed. At the moment, I work as a receptionist at a lab in Brooklyn. Come June, I will most likely not be working as a receptionist at a lab in Brooklyn.

That said, if I thought it made sense to go back and get a graduate degree in something, I would, but I’m pretty sure they don’t have masters programs for comic book reading, weed smoking or pop punk songwriting.

D: Do you write all of the House Boat lyrics?

G: For the most part, yeah. Other than like three lines, Azeem wrote all the lyrics for the ones he sings lead on.

D: House Boat’s lyrics often paint a narrative of depression and self-loathing. Do you write from an autobiographical perspective or from someone else's point of view?

G: I’m pretty self-obsessed, so they’re definitely all about me. I get pretty sad sometimes! The songs are where the bad feelings go. When you write a shitty song about how shitty you feel it makes you feel better. I think there are maybe two or three Steinways songs that are written from someone else’s point of view, but for the most part, I can’t write shit unless it’s about me, I’d guess that at least 90% of my songs start with the word “I.” Or at least an implied “I.”

D: What are the two or three songs you wrote from someone else's perspective?

G: Off the top of my head, “Diogo A Go Go” and “It All Went Wrong” by The Steinways are both supposed to be other people talking, but could just as easily be me.

D: A couple songs on the new House Boat album stick out as sounding different from anything you've previously done. They're actually the first and last tracks. The riff used throughout "Who Let The Dogs Out" (which I think is the best song off the album, despite the name) sounds like something meant to be played with a sitar. How did you come up with this and musically what is it exactly that gives it that sound?

Secondly, "Bug Out" seems almost too heartfelt to be written by you, I think it's a beautiful song, but there seems to be none of the irony or self-depreciation you usually use. Was this song written sincerely or is it tongue in cheek? I noticed the lyrics to Teenage Bottle Rocket's "Skate or Die" are in its place in the album's liner notes.

G: I wrote most of “Who Let The Dogs Out” while I was standing on the train platform waiting to go home one night. The riffy shit just kind of came up when I went home and started messing with it on garageband. It’s not really supposed to sound “different.” I mean it’s basically just “I Work On The 13th Floor” with a slightly modified riff and melody. But, yeah, I like that one too, so thanks!

“Bug Out” is a super sad song I wrote when I was desperate to get back together with a girl. I never really planned on using it for a record, but when we were putting songs together for this last full length, it seemed like it really fit and would be a nice closer.

D: Why do you rarely title your songs after lyrics in them?

G: If I wasn’t in my bands, and I picked up one of my bands’ records, I’d be like “Who the fuck does this guy think he is?” That said, I almost never give a song a title just because I think, “Oh, this is hilarious.” I don’t have a lot of songs with repetitive choruses, so it’s generally kind of hard to pick out a “refrain” to use as a title. If a title seems to not make any sense, odds are it’s just an inside joke between me and myself.

D: Have you really watched The Biggest Loser Australia as your song title suggests?

G: You better fucking believe I have, three seasons of that shit no less! One season of that show is literally about 80 episodes long, which is fucking nuts, so it’s on 4-6 times a week. I don’t know what’s wrong with Australians. I don’t know what’s wrong with me either. I actually resisted the temptation to start watching this season, so maybe I’m getting better.

D: How did you even become aware of the show? Any other shows of that vein that you've wasted too much time on?

G: I think the Amazing Race Asia was the first non-American reality show I accidentally stumbled upon. I was probably torrent searching the regular Amazing Race and that shit popped up. I’ve seen Biggest Loser Australia, MasterChef Australia, Junior MasterChef Australia, The Apprentice UK, The Junior Apprentice UK, The Apprentice New Zealand, Beauty and the Geek Australia, Amazing Race Asia, Biggest Loser UK, etc, etc, etc. Though many years later, I’m finally getting tired of all that shit. I haven’t watched any foreign reality television yet this year, and I may not at all. Though I will say that both Junior Apprentice UK (recently renamed “Young Apprentice”) and Junior MasterChef are fucking brilliant, and I will watch the shit out of both as soon as they’re back on.

D: Back to music, what does the future hold for you?

G: There will definitely be some more House Boat stuff this year. We have an EP of sorts coming out in a couple of months, and we’ve also got a song on that comp Larry Livermore put together for Adeline Records. We’re looking to record for a split that I’m really excited about in July. I won’t say who the band is, and it’s not like it’s someone that’s going to make people lose their minds or anything, but I really hope it works out. Past that, I’ve been trying to get a couple of non-House Boat things off the ground, one which involves all people I’ve played music with before and one that involved no people I’ve played music with before. Either those two things will happen, or I’ll just say fuck it and do another Barrakuda McMurder thing.

D: What is the lineup for Barrakuda McMurder?

G: Barrakuda McMurder is me and whoever else is around. So far “members” have included me, Chris Pierce, Matt Lame, Azeem, Chelsea Lacatena and Chris Grivet.

The stuff on the first Barrakuda McMurder 7” and the stuff on the first House Boat LP was all written at more or less the same time. At that point, House Boat didn’t exist, and it was looking like The Steinways would do a third LP. I wanted to record with other folks, so I just took 6 songs from what I had and went and recorded them with Chris Pierce playing drums and me playing more or less everything else. I definitely wish I’d saved a song or two from that for the first House Boat record.

Since then, the only other thing “we’ve” done is a free release that was just me and Azeem playing everything. Those songs were definitely more “throwaways” that House Boat was never going to record.

D: Alright one last question, and I want you to answer seriously, where do you see yourself in life in 2019 when you turn 40 years old?

G: I have no idea. I'd like to think that I won't still be splitting my time between temping and pining over unattainable women, but I think my discography might disagree with me. I'd settle for working someplace I don't totally hate, dating somebody I totally like and making records a couple of times a year with my friends. That's pretty much the sum of my life's ambitions at this point.