Punk is a loaded word. It’s been ascribed to popular artists as diverse as New Found Glory, Green Day, and Patti Smith. Graham Caldwell makes music as Billy Moon that expands beyond the label, gifting listeners with a tonally diverse album made for a record player’s full turns.
Punk Songs, Caldwell’s debut LP, contains traces of melancholy wall-of-sound amplitude (see “Big Black Hole”) and mile-a-minute shout-singing (“Dingus”) reminiscent of Parquet Courts. But there are also moments atypical to traditional punk, like the sax solo on “Tangerine Dream,” a make-out anthem that borrows more from Nirvana lyrics than it does from Kosmische music.
We sat down with Caldwell and talked childhood piano lessons, how a riff becomes a song, and his take on the tenuous relationship between drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Listen to “Tangerine Dream” from Punk Songs below:
AF: You started playing piano at two years old. Were you naturally inclined or was it a “Tiger Mom” situation?
BM: Honestly, my Dad was really musical but he always felt pressured by his parents to do piano, which was this big point of contention between them. Being that he didn’t want to pressure his own kids the same way, it was my Mom who had set up piano lessons for us. So my Dad was the more musical one, but it was my Mom who set them up. It wasn’t until fourth grade that I started learning guitar – I think I just wanted to start playing a cooler instrument.
AF: What instrument did you write your first songs on? Was piano more by the book?
BM: Yeah, I didn’t know how to write anything myself on piano. I only learned what I had in front of me. It wasn’t until I played guitar that I started writing my own songs.
AF: What were those first songs like? Were they in the punk genre?
BM: The first one was like… four notes. I can still remember it. I was ten. Yeah, that was when I decided I wanted to be punk. Then I really got into the whole ’00s indie phase, so I started writing that kind of stuff.
AF: You started Billy Moon in Hamilton, Ontario. What’s the music scene like there?
BM: Hamilton is a steel town, so maybe it’s comparable to a place like Pittsburgh. I think of it as Canada’s answer to Buffalo, NY. It’s a town that many people in the surrounding area are quick to shit on, but locals have an incredible amount of hometown pride, which is cool. Being a working class city, Hamilton’s main point of pride in history was probably Teenage Head, who were a really great rockabilly style punk act in the ’80s. Currently, this band called The Arkells are the main ambassadors of the city. They’re fairly successful in Canada and recently played a stadium-sized show in Hamilton so I’d say when a lot of people hear Hamilton, they’re one of the things that comes to mind.
The thing about Hamilton is that there was decent music there when I was in University and it was very quickly getting hailed as this hot new scene where all this cool shit was happening. This got all these developers to come in and start buying up property and jacking up the rent, so in a matter of years the “hot new scene” cooled off really fast. More people are moving there because it’s still fairly cheap, but these are people who are buying houses, not necessarily renting.
Holy fuck, my friend just told me Mac Miller died.
AF: WHAT? Oh my goodness… just googled. Holy shit. Have you noticed more drug use in your own scene? I’m a festival goer, so I’m not sure if I can tell.
BM: Look. Fuck that shit. I have friends who do a fuckload of coke and it’s just so normal. And the thing that I hate about cocaine is that it’s the most boring fucking drug there is. That’s it? Really? You just want to talk really fast about how comfortable your jeans are? That’s your drug of choice? People are starting to know people who [accidentally] OD on [coke cut with] fentanyl and they still do coke regularly. I honestly fucking hate it.
And I’m not straight edge by any means, but I’m really not a “drug guy.” I’ve been in at least one sketchy situation where I eventually learned what the meaning of “risk” is, and when I see people continuing to use drugs like that, I feel like they’re just putting themselves in situations where they could die. I have been to four funerals this past year and the one thing you don’t forget is the permanence of death. People don’t fucking get it until it happens to them. We’re so used to living lives that are based around change that we don’t understand what it means to have something happen that can’t change. Where something stops. Where you have to say “that was the last time.”
So people continue to use and take these unnecessary risks. I don’t want to criticize people with addiction problems, but I do feel like there are others who don’t need to do any of this shit and still do because they don’t realize the danger and the consequences.
AF: Do you feel like certain kinds of music romanticize drugs too much? Normalize it to an extreme?
BM: Well here’s the thing about music: musicians that perform songs about using are singing about a fantasy life that part of us wishes we could live. It makes us feel dangerous and powerful so we like that. I loved FIDLAR’s first record but I’m not a heroin addicted skate-rat. I just wish I could be for three-minute chunks of time.
I read somewhere that we want our idols to live the lives we wish we could live, and I think that’s incredibly true. However, I think it’s this double-edged sword of how we want these people to live out our own power fantasies, while taking responsibility for their power isn’t a part of that. It should be, but it ruins the point of it all.
We want to have Lil Pump’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude so we idolize it, but he’s not going to say to himself: “Oh shit, I should tell people to not abuse prescription painkillers and stay in school.”
AF: Ha! Yeah it would ruin the fun for sure.
BM: It’s just frustrating and sad. The worst part about the “positivity” wave in music was that it gave people this sense of “I’m all about positivity” but does not hold them accountable to anything. It doesn’t even tell people how to vote – as if worker’s rights and environmental protections are just irrelevant as long as you “emit positivity.”
AF: Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to remain current in terms of subject matter? To tackle global warming or workers rights in your own music? Or is it something you speak out on more in your personal life?
BM: I mean, I’m trying to figure out how to ride that line because I’m not Anti-Flag or Rage. There’s lot’s of examples of how music I love touches on important issues. Given the political body that I currently live in (white, cis, male) I get a little nervous speaking on issues that don’t affect me directly, but I still feel that they’re important to speak on. At this point, it’s more just my personal life, but I’m still… sort of in a bubble… being in a rural area 20 minutes away from everything. I don’t run into a lot of political debate out here.
AF: “Play a riff over and over and over again until you’re bored with it, then write another riff and make a song with it before you get bored with that one too”. That’s songwriting as you’ve previously described it. Is that still how you approach the writing process? It starts with a riff?
BM: Yeah… or an idea… a line… a melody. Then I’ll just build the whole song around that. I wrote “Dingus” because I wanted to write a song called “Dingus.” Sometimes it’s just that. I have one that I want to put out in the future called “One Of Us Is Definitely Wrong (And It’s Probably Me).”
AF: “Bedroom” opens the new album and makes a powerful statement that seems to be in reaction to our current dependency on technology. Why did you want to open the record with this: “Do you remember boredom? And the freedom that came with it? We wanted freedom from desires and they just gave us more desires. Constantly carrying an unquenchable thirst. I once filled up notebooks, I had no surface to scroll through.”
BM: There’s a Pete Holmes joke where he talks about Facebook and he says: “What was I doing? Was I shilling wheat?” I was writing. I was writing, drawing, playing guitar, all that shit. It’s like, now they have classes after school because kids don’t know how to do imaginative play anymore. Klosterman had a line where he said “Kids play on computers and it makes them think like computers.” Kids are now learning that in order to be famous or creative you have to be a fucking YouTube star who douses themselves in Nutella because that’s funny for some reason.
Don’t get me wrong – I know that’s not every kid, and it’s… what… generational cycnicism? to say the one that came after you is worse than yours, but I still feel like kids may be given these powerful creation tools with their phones, but it’s causing them to create within those contexts. I’m just a few steps away from being a cynical Gen Xer trying to tell kids how great Sebadoh were.
AF: You worked with animator Tru Dee on the music video for “DWTBA”. The video feels almost like a trippy D.A.R.E. commercial, with The Namma, an innocent fuzzball being influenced by his demonic skeletal friends. Can you tell us more about the video?
BM: I randomly met Tru in Toronto and then a friend recommended that I talk to her to do an animated video. I just wanted to juxtapose the two styles together. Kind of like Jeff Smith’s Bone. That’s really all it was. She does fantastic work and I was just happy that she was into the project. I just wanted the Namma looking cute and throw some “traditional rock’n’roll” images in there too. The Satanic scene came out at the end which I thought looked great.
CBC (Canada’s publicly subsidized broadcaster) has a podcast about a woman escaping NXIVM which is terrifying and insane. I think cult leaders are really just fulfilling a deeply complicated sexual fantasy.
AF: What music do you have on rotation right now? Any new tunes we should check out?
BM: I’m gonna check out the new IDLES. Jonathan Richman is great. U.S. Girls, the new Ezra Furman is great. Oh and I started listening to a bunch of The Coup after watching Sorry To Bother You.
AF: You’ll be doing a U.S. Tour this fall to support the album. What do you want an audience member to take away from a Billy Moon show? Is there a specific feeling or message you try to convey in a live setting?
BM: Just come to the show with a bunch of money and spend it all on merch! I really hope people will feel happy and confident with themselves after seeing it, I hope that it can be inspiring to others. A little glimmer of happiness in a dark confusing world.
Billy Moon’s debut LP Punk Songs will be released September 14th via Old Flame Records.