Almost exactly one year ago, Richmond grunge-rockers Gnawing released their first LP, You Freak Me Out. If you remember last July (I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t… for the past couple of years, all the months have felt kind of the same), the live music world was just starting to come back online, and the entire world was dealing with socio-political chaos that still hasn’t really dissipated. In particular, supply chain issues were paramount, and delays in the arrival of vinyl ultimately had a fair bit to do with Gnawing’s debut full-length being somewhat overlooked by the world at large.
The band hasn’t let it get to them, though. Over the winter, they released a stand-alone follow-up single, “Germs Burn.” And earlier this week, they played a show at Gallery 5 with Supercrush — which they billed, in somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, as the “one-year anniversary” of You Freak Me Out‘s initial release. In light of all that, as well as the fact that we’d never actually interviewed them before, I decided this would be a perfect time to catch up with Gnawing frontman, guitarist, and chief songwriter John Russell to get the lowdown on the band’s early days, the process behind the creation of You Freak Me Out, and what Gnawing have going on over the rest of 2022 and beyond. Here’s our conversation.
Marilyn Drew Necci: How did Gnawing get started? My understanding is that it began as a solo project. What was the evolution like, from solo songwriting/recording project to full band? What inspired that change?
John Russell: Gnawing really started as a recording project. I was in a really heavy noise rock band at the time and had these poppy love songs written that obviously would not work with that band, so I just recorded them to keep them somewhere.
When I moved to Richmond and met Christian [Monroe, drummer], we talked about music a bunch while both working at Guitar Center and had so much stuff in common that I knew I wanted to play music with him. I showed him the Gnawing tape as sort of a throwaway, like “Here’s what I can play,” and he was like “Dude, we should play THESE songs…” We got together and jammed on a couple of the tape songs and it felt so good, so here we are four years later!
MDN: I saw on the bandcamp where you call the band “A loud rock n’ roll band that wishes they were a country band,” which intrigues me. Can you explain that a little further?
JR: It’s mostly an in-joke about how I always try and twang our songs up, but I honestly think it’s pretty accurate. We all like country music (some probably more than others) and I definitely write with country sensibilities in mind. But we also really enjoy playing really loud music, so it kinda becomes a weird mesh of the two.
MDN: What was the musical aim when the band began? Has it changed any? And is the whole early-90s retro vibe evoked on the bandcamp page something you were shooting for before you began writing the songs, or did it just kind of happen?
JR: Initially when it was just me, the musical aim was to write something a little more poppy and accessible, but still have big fuzzy guitars. At this point in the band, that’s still pretty much the goal, but also making sure that all four of us are interested in the stuff we’re writing. The only real hard and fast rule we have is to not just keep doing the same thing over and over. We want to keep it new and interesting for ourselves first and foremost. Sometimes we try something and totally eat shit on it and it doesn’t make it out of the practice space, and that’s fine! We are happy with experimenting and not settling for, like, “Oh, yeah, I guess this sounds like us… Good enough, hit record!”
As far as the 90’s vibe goes, it’s just kind of how it came out! I grew up loving that era of indie rock/college rock, so I think it’s just what I know at this point. Finding 90’s “slacker rock” type stuff like Pavement, Dinosaur Jr and the Lemonheads in high school was a really big revelation for me, so my brain is definitely drawn to replicating that aesthetic and sound.
MDN: Tell me about You Freak Me Out. I recognize that it’s been out for a year now, but it seems it still hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves, so let’s delve into how the album came about. What was the songwriting process like for it? Were you just writing random songs that you put together on an album once you had enough, or was there a conscious attempt to write an album? From your point of view, what distinguishes the songs on the album from your earlier songs?
JR: The writing process for YFMO was interesting. We had written about half of the record when COVID hit, so we had to pause for a minute on writing and jamming while the world was totally shut down. Once masking started taking off, we kept writing and just tried to stay as far away from each other in the practice space and masked up the whole rehearsal. It was a sweaty and not particularly fun process, but we were very motivated to finish the record. Initially we just had several songs that felt like they fit on the same family tree, but as it became clearer we were working on an LP, the last couple songs were definitely put together more with a specific grouping of songs in mind.
I think the difference between the LP songs and the older songs is the amount of collaboration. The tape was just me playing everything and having little outside input, where the LP songs had a ton of bouncing ideas off of Chris and Christian. Christian wrote and played pretty much everything on “Swimming Pool,” Chris came up with the riff and composition of “FAB-1;” it was just way more of a group effort.
MDN: What was the recording process for You Freak Me Out like?
JR: We knew we wanted to work with Allen Bergendahl, so we had several conversations with him prior to jumping the studio. He had already mastered our Shaky 7” from 2020, so he knew what we were going for. We tried to be really COVID-conscious while recording, and the studio we recorded at, Rabid Ear, had a few COVID rules we made sure to observe. One of the more difficult ones to navigate was essential personnel only, meaning when we did drums, it was just me, Christian and Allen. When we did guitars or vocals, it was just me and Allen. I’m very used to an entire band hanging out in the studio and making the record together, so it was hard to sometimes have that isolation from your bandmates when both Allen and I were questioning a guitar tone or vocal take or something.
Ultimately all of us are extremely proud of YFMO and think it came out exactly how we wanted it to, but I don’t think we will replicate that process for LP #2, haha.
MDN: Was You Freak Me Out released by a label? How did the whole release work, especially in light of all the disruptions to the DIY music world caused by the pandemic?
JR: You Freak Me Out was released by Refresh Records, previously of Charlotte, NC, now up in Cleveland. Releasing music at that point in 2021 was so weird, because we were (and are) very much still in a worldwide pandemic, so it felt kind of selfish to be like, “Hey, go listen to this rock record!” But music was really important and really helpful to me in the depths of COVID isolation, so I think our hope was that it wouldn’t seem dismissive of larger issues happening. We were trying to provide some light in a really hard and dark time.
The supply chain and COVID delays were not fun to navigate; the record came out in July and our vinyl did not ship from the plant until around January of this year, so we played a bunch of shows around the release of the LP with no actual records. That was super fun…
MDN: I know the band formed around John as frontperson and chief songwriter, but there’s an official four-piece lineup now, right? How’d the lineup come together? How’d the other members get involved, and how does the band operate differently now that it’s more of a band and not just some dudes backing up a solo songwriter?
JR: There is a four-piece lineup! So it started with Christian and I working at Guitar Center together and jamming, and then adding Ali Mislowsky from Big Baby & Young Scum on bass. She wanted more time to focus on her projects and thought we ate too much Taco Bell on tour, so she had to put in her two weeks notice, but the clouds parted and the heavens produced Chris Matz to us as a ready and willing bass player, with a bass tone that sounds like an anchor hitting a concrete floor. After the LP we started toying with the idea of adding a second guitarist. There are so many guitar things happening in the background on YFMO, and it’s hard to replicate some of it as a three-piece. In the spring we had our friend Garrett Whitlow (who plays guitar in Billy Neptune) fill in on bass for two shows, and we just gelled so well that it was a very easy choice to ask him to join the band.
Adding all of these different voices and musical backgrounds has gotten us to where we are now, which feels like the best version of this band yet. It doesn’t feel like JR and the Backing Boys at all, it really feels like a fully involved project from all four members. We’ve been working on new material for a few months now and everyone has great ideas, everyone is bringing stuff to the table. It’s really awesome to witness and be a part of.
MDN: Your latest single is “Germs Burn.” As a girl for whom seeing Decline Of Western Civilization in high school was a very formative experience, I instantly recognize this reference to Darby Crash, The Germs, and the symbol of loyalty to the band that the title references. What do the Germs mean to the members of Gnawing? And how did y’all come upon them and get into them enough to reference them in the title of a song released 41 years after Darby Crash died? I mean, I’m 46, and I feel like a lot of people who are even 10 years younger than me don’t know much about the Germs. So how’d y’all end up doing this song extensively referencing them?
JR: So the Germs were one of my favorite punk bands in high school, and I was obsessed with the mythology behind the “germs burn.” I’m not sure how I got into them, really; I was in love with that early 80’s southern California hardcore scene, Black Flag, Minutemen, Descendents, so I probably heard about the Germs while prowling one of those bands’ Wikipedia articles. My two best friends in high school were also obsessed with 80’s and 90’s punk rock, and we used to just walk around and talk about records and punk bands, or drive around and listen to music.
The song is about a particular night where two of us had left Wilmington to go to college, but came back for a fall break or something, and all three of us met up and did the same thing we used to, where we would just walk around the downtown area of Wilmington. It was sort of bittersweet, because things had changed so much and we could still get together and do what we used to do in high school. We stayed out all night just wandering around and hanging out on parking decks, and eventually got ourselves hyped up to give each other germs burns, as a sort of friendship pact. We were so excited to do it and then totally got freaked out and chickened out when an actual lit cigarette was produced. Plus a very important part of the mythology is that it has to come from a member of the Germs, so they would have all been invalid anyways!
MDN: You guys are doing a one-year anniversary celebration for You Freak Me Out, which makes all the tenth-anniversary-of-famous-albums tours (or even fifth anniversary tours, in some cases) from about half a decade ago seem downright tortoise-like. In all seriousness, I know this is an attempt to reintroduce the public to an album that, coming out in the later stages of the pandemic like it did, blew right by a lot of people without them catching on to it. So what’s the one-year anniversary gonna consist of? And what are you hoping it achieves?
JR: Hopefully it just gets some more ears and eyes on the record! We’re really proud of it and really excited for the future of the band, so we want people to get on board now before we are international pop super hitmakers. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something huge. But seriously, we are super proud of the LP and want people to dig in and experience the full track listing like we planned it, and immerse themselves in Gnawing lore. I think Josh and Refresh Records have a little merch bundle planned for the anniversary sale, which is always fun to do a little commerce!
MDN: What’s the rest of 2022 look like for Gnawing? What are y’all attempting to accomplish in the near future?
JR: We’ve got some local shows and a light touring schedule planned (keep an eye on the fall!), and are still chugging away on songs for the follow-up LP. We don’t have recording time scheduled yet or anything, so it’s a slow moving process, but we’re really excited about the new stuff and hope it is exciting for everyone else. We’re just chipping away at the youthful punk rock years we have left before we fully give in to being a country bar band.
All Photos by Sav Elliott