For the last 20 plus years By the Grace of God have been a force in punk and hardcore. Since then the band have broken up, retired, had a reunion show, had another reunion show, then another, and now, ahem, by the grace of god, eventually just reunited for keeps, inasmuch as time and space allows a constituency separated by both land mass and career.
Now for the first time since their Three Steps to a Better Democracy release in 2004, the BTGOG crew is back at it with a new record for troubled times. You can listen to their first album below to get hyped up. Never Nervous correspondent James Miller caught up with the homies to ask about getting back in the studio, audience, and anti-capitalism!
Interviewer’s note: this interview, conducted via email, has been edited to be less repetitive and more readable.
NN: Tell us about the new record and the impetus behind it. What will it have in common with previous BTGOG records? What will be different about it?
DUNCAN: It’s a bit of a long story, but I’ll condense it. We wrote a couple songs in 2012 and nothing really came of it. We’d had some offers to do a record and we worked out something between two of the labels. Still, with me living in South Dakota and the others busy with bands and work, we couldn’t quite get on the same page with it. When election season came around, things started solidifying. We began talking more about it and by January we’d booked some studio time. This record, from a musical standpoint, was a very special thing. We wrote the majority of the songs in two days, and it was the most democratic writing process we’ve ever had. I think we had a total of three parts between us when we came in and we left with six songs that we were very excited about. We recorded those songs the same week, so essentially, we wrote and recorded the six songs (with the exception of the rough parts we’d sketched out in the previous years, songs we mostly rewrote) in a total of five days.
THOMMY: We had been sitting on unrecorded material for years, and had been meaning to get together to fine-tune it and record it. We have a group chat on FB that we use to communicate with each other and we through there we found the time to make it work. The songs definitely have that BTGOG aesthetic, so people listening to it will find that common thread. I’m not quite sure what will be different about … it may sound more mature? It’s not so chugga-chugga, but still aggressive, emotional and cathartic.
“We didn’t reinvent the wheel, didn’t try to revision what BTGOG would look like today, we just refined what we were good at—writing punk songs with edge and melody.”
DUNCAN: Sonically, I think it touches on some of the same ground we covered in records like “For The Love of Indie Rock” and “Perspective,” but there is also a freshness to these songs, a maturity in the songwriting that is at once, to me anyway, new and classic sounding. I think if things hadn’t turned out the way they did after the first full-length, we would have been closer to this group of songs. We didn’t reinvent the wheel, didn’t try to revision what BTGOG would look like today, we just refined what we were good at—writing punk songs with edge and melody.
TREE: And the political climate right now is perfect for BTGOG to stir up some trouble.
NN: As a writing teacher, I always tell my students to have a specific audience in mind when they are writing (and the audience can’t be “whoever wants to read it”). Who’s the audience for this new record, and what are your goals for the record?
DUNCAN: When Dave from State of Mind Records asked if we’d do a record, I was a little vague about our future, but then he sent me a photo of his young boy going berserk to one of our songs in the basement of his house and I’d be lying if that didn’t convince me that Dave was serious when he said that we were one of his favorite bands (his son’s too). So I thought about his son when writing, but another part of me thought about the consistency of the band. With “Three Steps to a Better Democracy” and our single “Art of Industry” we were trying to figure out where to go next and the band was sort of half-operating, jumping between drummers, and I was basically over playing music and walking out the door to grad school. This record was important to us to refocus.
ROB: These songs were constructed fairly quickly and I am not sure if we had an audience in mind. They are not a significant departure from the older songs, so I guess we are aiming to write for the people that have supported us in the past. As musicians I think we picked a lane and worked with in that lane to write songs we would enjoy playing.
Tree: Honestly we were the audience I had in mind in the writing process. You want to do something that you love and then hope other people are into it as well. It’s a fairly safe bet that the audience for this record will be people around our age who have always been with us but I would really love it if the younger kids in the scene embraced it as well. And REALLY old people. I want the geriatric crowd hyped!
NN: When you’re writing music and lyrics, who comes first: you (“I like this”) or the audience (“They will like this”)? Do those two goals ever come into conflict, and if so, how does that get resolved?
TREE: I feel like what we like has to come first. I’d hate to feel like we weren’t being genuine just to please other people. I don’t think we’ve ever really had that conflict. Not on this record for sure!
THOMMY: I think it is pretty safe to say we always write for ourselves, then every now and then we think of key elements that the “kids” may like. A mosh part, a sing-a-long, etc. Most of those things happen organically.
“Through all of these years, BTGOG lyrics have often depicted conversations I have with myself.”
ROB: I generally write the lyrics for me, but often end up speaking to others. Through all of these years, BTGOG lyrics have often depicted conversations I have with myself. There are times when I have edited my lyrics after writing them due to a concern that they might be too easily misinterpreted. I am ok with that because BTGOG has always been partially about the community in which we exist. I hope to lift people up, not bring them down.
THOMMY: I’ll let Rob or Duncan handle this one.
DUNCAN: This is a bit of an impossible question. Clearly, we can’t be anti-capitalist as we exist in the matrix of Capital and it’s inescapable in many regards. Rather than go down an ontological and philosophical rabbit hole and wax academic, I’ll leave it at this: we never sought to make a living. We only played because we loved playing. We now love playing together more than ever before, I’d wager. This disinterest in profit hasn’t always been the wisest decision. We used to sell ourselves short. At this point, we just want to break even on things and enjoy ourselves. Clearly, we need people to pay for shows and buy shirts and records, so that we can make it happen. In a perfect world, we’d give everything away, but we don’t live in such a world and must pay for travel.
ROB: I am not sure if I still completely subscribe to such dichotomous labels. I find myself trying to adhere to a few broad principles instead of getting caught up in the momentum of this vs. that politics. I am definitely a capitalism skeptic and have a deeper mistrust of the corporation.
“When CEOs are making billions of dollars and the people working for them can barely pay the bills, something’s wrong for sure.”
TREE: When CEOs are making billions of dollars and the people working for them can barely pay the bills, something’s wrong for sure.
NN: There have been quite a few people in BTGOG over the years: who’s in the studio for the new record? I assume there will be shows and tours — will the same people be part of those too?
THOMMY: Rob, Duncan, Tree and myself are on this new record. We were really hoping Jay could be a part of it, but his intense work schedule, plus living an hour+ away would’ve been too much for him. As of now we do not have any shows or tours planned, but most likely those people will be part of tours in the future. I am unable to tour for weeks at a time, so if they get any offers to go back to Europe, South America, Japan, etc. then they’ll most likely get a fill-in for me.
TREE: It’s a lot harder now with jobs and families and Duncan living so far away but we usually find a way to sneak some stuff in.
DUNCAN: This process has really revitalized us and we’re looking forward to playing shows. We toyed around with changing the name for several reasons, but after weeks of discussion, decided just to continue as BTGOG.
NN: What musical acts are you all listening to these days? Did any of them influence this record?
THOMMY: I have been listening to a lot of modern punk/hardcore. Local bands like Wicked Garden, Nine Eyes, Transgression, Head Change, Constraint, and Poof (to name a few). And national acts like Free, Gouge Away, Bruise, Shame, Bib, Rhythm Of Fear and Homewrecker (to name a few).
DUNCAN: Because of my Meniere’s disease, I tend to listen to less distorted and/or compressed music these days, with a few exceptions. I’m always finding new punk bands and buy their records, I just can’t listen to them with the regularity I once did. In honesty, I spend most of my days without music now because I’m reading and writing so much. However, I did spend some days leading up to the session listening to records that I thought had a unique sound to them, records that were timeless and didn’t seem overly produced. I wanted this record to have the quality of the records I find most timeless.
ROB: I have gone down a recent wormhole of Native American hip hop (Supaman, Drezus, Frank Waln). The ire in these songs reminds me of when I first listened to NWA. They taste of the intense narrative our countries most disenfranchised peoples.
TREE: It’s crazy, it seems like a couple of cool new things come out every week. Not to mention all the old records I still want to listen to constantly! I guess the most recent Descendents and Suicidal Tendencies records have still been in heavy rotation. The new Mastodon, Full of Hell and Origin records are all really great. None of that really sneaks into BTGOG though.
NN: What non-musical things are you really excited about these days?
DUNCAN: I’m excited about all the amazing new writers that problematize the nature of narratives and language. It’s what I do with most of my time these days. Rob and I went caving while I was in town, this crazy dangerous cave we used to explore when we were young and fearless. At 45, it was amazing and terrifying in a way it wasn’t back then. It was the perfect way to celebrate thirty years of friendship.
ROB: I am jazzed about the proliferation of vegan eateries around town. Anyone that knows me well, knows that I will play a show, give a lecture, almost anywhere for anything if delicious vegan vittles are involved.
TREE: Skateboarding! I’ll always be the most excited about that little 4 wheeled toy.
THOMMY: The overthrow and/or complete demise of our current administration.
NN: Tell us about your other musical or non-musical projects.
DUNCAN: I’m always doing something, usually just home studio stuff these days. However, I am finishing up my first official solo record with the help of some much more talented and professional friends around the country and I’m super happy with it so far. I’ll fly to Denver in August to mix it. It’s not punk at all, which I’m sure will surprise no one, but it’s a pop record with some psychedelic overtones. It’s coming out on Louisville’s, Eastwood Records, who put out a project of mine a couple years ago called Shears.
ROB: I am really excited about some of the work I have been doing in teaching student with severe disabilities how to write. I have some great colleagues and we have been doing some pretty cool research in this area. In the past, writing for students with severe disabilities had involved nonfunctional tasks (e.g. tracing their names, copying words). We have raised the bar for what these kids can do!
TREE: I’ve got Oculist, which is a bit on again off again but really fun. On the non-musical side I’ve got my remodeling business which for all its stress and headaches is really rad.