Shutups Take Mundane Missteps and Make Them Worth a Dance on EP 5

Oakland band Shutup’s new EP 5 is a very adult piece of work. This isn’t to say that it is frigid or stuffy, but moreso that it provides a rollicking rock foray into the complexities of adulthood.

Some of this grown-up feeling comes from Shutups’ desire to not waste time. Almost every song on the five-track EP starts with a line that pulls no punches. The mood is set in less than ten seconds, and by the time the lyrics have settled inside you, the drums and bass and percussion have come to play — but by then you’re already too far down the river to turn back.

Take EP highlight “The Monday after Easter Sunday.” The song starts out with an ethereal synth instrumental before the lyrics kick in, giving the listener a bit of a breather before this: “The Monday after Easter Sunday’s filled with guilt again/because I didn’t call your mom when I said I would/but tomorrow I’ll make good on that.”

Platitudes can be great — pop, for one, couldn’t exist without them — but moments of hyper-specificity like this leave a lasting impression. It’s one of punk’s greatest modern evolutions, one that has led to a plethora of post-hardcore and post-emo outlets that don’t bother screaming about The Man anymore. Why bother, when you know that pulling from your last journal entry is a little more on par with the current zeitgeist?

Being an adult is, unfortunately, grappling with your own mundanity and the fact that it’s the small failures that will fell you as opposed to the large ones, because they are so much harder to pinpoint. Forgetting to return a call, return a text. Realizing your taxes are due in 24 hours, like I do every single year without fail. These things can be as brutal as they are predictable.

The second single, “Can You Dance to a Feeling?” is a strange creature. Shutups seems to have the uncanny ability to take what sounds like two different songs (sometimes more than two) and weave them together in a way that feels natural. The chorus of “Dance” sees lead singer Hadley’s voice go unexpectedly high, even as it’s almost drowned out in a crash of percussion. The rest of the song has moments of bubbly electronica and those kicked-up drum refrains that are clearly part of Shutups’ go-to repertoire (and part of what makes them so fun). One way or another, it will get you dancing, whether during the big-band chorus or the verses.

Album opener “All at Once” takes a little while to hit its stride, but about a third of the way through we get a crunchy guitar riff that leads into one of the EP’s many killer lines: “I know your bed is soft for me/I’ll return your call in another week/I know this is only temporary/you might as well have died.” The complexities of personal obligations permeate this EP: phone calls, family. What do we owe to our friends who are suffering, even when we ourselves are not yet out of the woods?

The EP’s first single “Death from Behind” captures this best as Hadley muses, “I’ve been calling to request your songs/because I know you’re cutting too much/and anything will help pack a bong.” There’s a lot of potential interpretations here — self harm? Not eating enough? — but mining the lines for some sort of codebook on Hadley and drummer Mia’s personal relationships isn’t as important as the fact that we know we’ve all been there in some capacity. Trying to keep people afloat is hard, and trying to do it perfectly — or at all — is sometimes impossible.

The yenta in me (which greets the yenta in you) still wants the codebook, however, especially for the EP closer, “Last Place” which starts rather dirge-like. “How do I know my friends are still there?/When I cry, can they hear?” Hadley asks. There are some beautiful lines here, notably: “I’ll sleep in the back of my car/cause that’s the last place I heard you laughin’/and I suppose I’m overreactin’/ but I don’t know when any of this shit will end.” I’d love the full story behind this, but I’ll settle for sitting with the plucky guitar that leads us out of the EP. And after that’s done — I’ll make a few phone calls.

Follow Shutups on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Grumpster Finds Solance On the Edges of Debut LP Underwhelmed



Over deli sandwiches, Falyn Walsh of Grumpster told me that she thinks some people are meant to become friends.

I had met her, along with Lalo Gonzalez Deetz (guitar) and Noel Agtane (drums) at Gilman Brewing some hours earlier, where we discussed the Oakland band’s debut album, Underwhelmed.

The night before, I had gone to their sold-out show at iconic Berkeley venue 924 Gilman, where the trio gleefully performed their longest set ever to an audience with the ceaseless kinetic energy of an ant colony. I saw no less than three green-dyed heads, an accidental homage to Walsh’s short green crop that made it seem as if the place was being slowly overtaken by punky sprites.

At one point, the band held up the Gilman’s DIY SOLD OUT sign, grinning ear to ear. It was, unquestionably, a night of triumph that was still palpable the next day, tired bodies notwithstanding.

Speaking of bodies, Underwhelmed, besides relentlessly espousing its titular theme, is a very bodily album. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it embraces full-on gore, but the concept of body-as-antagonist is clear. The most obvious example of this comes in “Nausea,” where Walsh details what feels like a weeks-long panic attack that has her asking “What’s become of me?/Tear my organs/from my body/the world/will finally/dispose of me.” The song later dives into one of the best metaphors on the record, where Walsh interrupts the wall of guitar with this exhausted, repeated warning: “And my hands shake like earthquakes/so stop telling me to get a grip.” Some references are a little more hidden, though this may only be because they lack the commentary of a live performance. For example, in one of my favorite moments of the release show, Walsh introduced “Put Me to Sleep” by yelling, “If you have ever had to deal with PMS, GET IN THE FUCKING PIT!”

The titular song sets the tone for this all very well, a little three-act performance before getting to the meat of the record. “If I was a pig I’d be the target of your slaughter/I’m shit out of luck/because you don’t give a fuck about me,” accuses Walsh over a sparse riff in Act I. Act II comes when she begins to detail the destructive effect this person has over her, guitars coming faster now, the whole thing sounding like a mini soundtrack for two people circling each other at a party. It’s not clear whether the antagonist in question is a former romantic partner or a friend, but the central point here is that it doesn’t matter — Grumpster is outfitting their j’accuse thesis in hard guitars and drums to lend some release to a very slow-burn sense of perpetual disappointment with everyone.

Act III is the reprise, where Walsh recalls her old bright-eyed, bushy-tailed self with little nostalgia. “Too bad,” she sings in a dry-eyed deadpan. “Nobody ever apologizes/until you’ve drank yourself to death/I guess your friends all care once you’re six feet underground.”

“Roots” is a stand-out song, and absolutely killed at the Gilman show — though not for the reasons you would expect. On the heels of a quick explanation from Walsh, the audience — some of whom had clearly done this before — started pairing up, hands on waists and shoulders, couples and friends and probably a few strangers. It was time for the slow dance.

Well, slow is relative, but watching a dozen-odd odd couples half sock-hop, half-mosh to the “Roots” rolling-hills riff is truly one of my favorite show moments ever.

Beyond the body and untrustworthy friends, another notable antagonist on the record is the mythical, unnamed “town” or “city,” such a mainstay detractor in punk records that its mentions in “Underwhelmed” and single “Crumbling” must be delivered with a touch of irony. “The city took my house and its people took my things/my neighbors took my books and all my shiny rings,” Walsh states on the former with the air of a disillusioned storybook character.

Yet even as misery has taken on a monolithic, mythical quality on Underwhelmed, so too have the people and places that Grumpster finds solace in. Deetz, for one, grew up a stone’s throw from 924 Gilman. “It was always very mysterious to me,” he said of the venue. Citing Green Day as his gateway to playing punk music, it comes as no surprise that inching ever so slowly towards the Gilman and its unofficial rites of passage was inevitable for Deetz. So too, apparently, was meeting Walsh.

“I came on a trip to San Francisco in 2016.” Walsh recalls. “I went to a show at Gilman. Lalo [Deetz] and I saw each other at the show and we were like, ‘this person looks interesting,’ but we didn’t meet… I went back to Massachusetts, bought a one way plane ticket, moved out here, and then like two months after moving we met each other… That’s the cosmic connection, dude!”

Agtane came from a musical family and had tried out various instruments throughout the years. Despite the many guitars and basses around his family home, Agtane’s own cosmic moment came in his late teens. “Once I started playing the drums,” he says, “I was like, ‘Oh. Yeah. This is supernatural.’”

All three of them speak of music with palpable love, even deification. Not to say that they are particularly woo-woo about it, but it’s clear that music inspires in Grumpster the sort of religious zeal that enables the Jehovah’s Witnesses at Powell BART to stand for hours in heeled shoes behind a table of leaflets and signs that ask, WILL SUFFERING END?

Well, probably not. As Underwhelmed reluctantly states, event if Agtane, Deetz, and Walsh have found cosmic kinship with the Bay Area and each other, that feeling of circling the drain can creep up on you even in the best of places — which is why its so damn disheartening enough to inspire a full record. Because if you can’t find solace here, where can you? We can only keep trying, and keep making music and art when it feels like we can’t.

Grumpster will be supporting Anti-Flag starting in May. Follow the band on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

PLAYING THE BAY: Boy Scouts Artfully Embraces Resignation on New LP Free Company

Taylor Vick of Boy Scouts. Photo Credit: Ulysses Ortega

It’s hard not to heavily associate new music with the time of year that you first heard it, where a few notes or a chorus can propel you back in time to months before, your eyes and ears filling with the sounds of springtime or the scrubbed-clean scent of winter.

Free Company, the new LP from Oakland band Boy Scouts, feels engineered for that strange time between summer and winter that some may refer to as “fall.” But here in the Bay Area, August through Halloween is a unpredictable haze, a season of busts and starts and long, lazy shadows, where everyone acts just a little bit strange, not sure what to expect from each other or themselves. It’s a far cry from the postcard fall aesthetic of cowl-necked sweaters and acres of fiery treetops, but carries its own magic just the same.

Free Company steps into this annual wind-down with brittle confidence, its strongest songs by far the ones that embrace resignation with a firm hand, leaning into the inevitable end of a relationship with exhausted eyes but determined words. Album standout “All Right” contradicts its title with a wink and nod as Boy Scouts vocalist, lyricist, and main instrumentalist Taylor Vick moons I’m all right, I swear/I’m all right/how dare you. Coming right on the heels of that is “Throw Away Love,” a great lyrical showing with an episodic feeling, like Boy Scouts is looking to expand the canon of their personal storytelling in micro: your friends I thought they were mine too/turned out they left along with you/now I’m a living example of/throw away love. Limiting the song title to one verse was a smart idea on Boy Scout’s part, as it would have been easy to turn those last few lines into a repeated chorus, but by making us wait for the payoff, the line — and the song itself — gains emotional weight and resonance.

Vick’s voice is quite distinct, floating somewhere in the realm between adolescence and adulthood. This isn’t to say that she sounds childlike or immature, but moreso that her voice can inspire a sense of nostalgia, especially on “In Ya Too,” where her easy delivery is doubled up during the chorus, making me feel like my eerie twin camp counselors pulled out a guitar during the s’mores roast.

The album overall is even-keeled despite the emotional weight; shower-sobbing breakup playlist music this is not, but post-breakup playlist music — when you have begrudgingly tried to “learn from the experience” and found the lessons wanting — it certainly is.

Album closer “You Were Once” works as a great wrap up of the album’s themes; guarded nostalgia, impermanence, the fallibility of friends and lovers. It was the year that I lost my friend/I knew I’d never be the same again, Vick sings, some of that even keel crumbling into the ocean at the last possible second, not unlike the best of us when we try to pretend we are more fine than we truly are.

PLAYING THE BAY: Polkadot Spins Folktales Among the Flowers on Spring Songs EP

polkadot band oakland

Polkadot’s most recent EP, Spring Songs, is a brief affair at four minutes and thirty-nine seconds. However, the two-song EP creates an immediate sonic landscape, an echoing folktale peeled from the page and delivered through ones and zeroes.

With a stripped-down delivery and a slow, two-person harmony, Spring Songs does not tick my normal musical boxes, but Poladot’s haunting vocal delivery on “Bruised” (I think I saw my mother/underneath the flowers) pulled me back to their page after concluding my weekly scour of Bandcamp tags, and the subsequent lyric had me wondering if Polkadot see spring as a time of fecundity and grace or as a menacing presence: skin bleached, god I hate it/Jesus was a patriot.   

“Doodle 3.7” is a strange entity, an almost unbroken harmony wending its way through less than two minutes. It feels more like a companion to “Bruised” than a song unto itself, and ends almost abruptly, enough so that I had to double check to make sure I hadn’t bumped the pause button. Musically, “Doodle” effectively continues the folky mood found in “Bruised,” but offers less of a full story, a door opening and shutting on whatever band members Daney, Anton, and Jordan are trying to say.

In their Bandcamp bio, Polkadot refers to themselves as “bay area baby punx,” an endearing moniker for a band that would certainly have a lot to discuss with the bedroom rockers of Sour Windows. The use of the word “baby” is interesting; it works in tandem with the lullaby aspects of the EP, but I wonder if it is meant to signal some sort of hesitation, a transition period between the rougher, homegrown aspects of Spring Songs and whatever future iteration Polkadot is building towards.

I appreciate the moments on the EP where the seams of production show; sometimes strings are hit a little too hard, sometimes songs start and end with the unmistakable sound of a recording starting or stopping. What’s great about these moments is that, while there is certainly some expectation of finality in official music releases, those bits and pieces serve as welcome reminder that this is a created thing.

More often than not, an overage of emotion that leads to a jangly note or strained vocal is exactly what leads to a band’s oldest recordings becoming their most beloved, enough so that I’ve watched people get into endless fights about what iteration of a band was the most “pure” or “authentic” – the one with slick production values or the one they recorded in a basement. I would say that both are equally authentic — every band, every artist, wants to grow, even if that means leaving the small-world comfort of DIY behind.

Perhaps Polkadot would rather those rougher moments not be in their final recordings, past or future, but I like them. It’s a bit like breaking the third wall in a film — you bring the audience, or the listeners, in on a little secret, if only for a breath: this is a folktale, too — just one we have created for ourselves.

Keep up-to-date on Polkadot’s live shows through their Instagram.

Hey Bay bands — get in touch with me @norcalgothic. Let me know about your upcoming or recent releases, shows, or anything else cool you think I should know about. 

PLAYING THE BAY: Grumpster is “Crumbling” in New Video

In the music video for “Crumbling,” by Oakland punk band Grumpster, lead singer Fayln Walsh tears off her baggy ’80s color-block shirt during the final breakdown, flinging her limbs with detached singularity in front of a golden-hour graveyard. Cut in between shots of the band playing live, this is the first time in the video we see Walsh drop some of her stone-faced lyric delivery as she walks throughout Oakland, passing through parking garages and convenience stores, plucking Pepperidge Farm cookies from as shelf as she mouths all of my tears have now turned black/and I forgot how to laugh.

Spiraling around her like off-track atoms are her bandmates Lalo Gonzalez Deetz (guitar), Noel Agtane (drums) and various friends, who intermittently palm her in the shoulder while tossing around a frisbee or shooting water guns, caught up in their very own picnic while Walsh continues her tired-eyed march towards the camera.

The line the agony and the apathy/have been dragging’ me down precedes the song’s chorus, one of its strongest — and funniest — lines. Grumpster seem to be leaning into their pathos for this single, the first offering from their full length Underwhelmed, slated for release in October on Asian Man Records. With lines like I’ll sit and I’ll mope/and I’m all out of hope and/I’ll die in this town, it’s hard not to grin in recognition of some good old-fashioned Bay Area kid melodrama — because at the end of the day, there are much worse places to stew in your own dissatisfaction.

Grumpster has been releasing solid work for a while now, with “Crumbling” coming on the heels of February’s “Strangers.” Though the latter appears untethered from any larger project, it does serve as a clear bridge between “Crumbling” and some of the band’s earlier work, which would be hard-pressed to embrace the sparse instrumental drop that accompanies the chorus on “Crumbling.” Walsh has an interesting vocal delivery, her voice almost always level and matter-of-fact, even as the words come fast, like someone telling you the bare-bones version of a story to avoid breaking down completely. “Strangers” and 2017’s “Kairos” were looser offerings, Walsh allowing her voice to rise in exasperation and mid-crush panic, respectively. While “Crumbling” is catchy — and that instrumental breakdown at the end is killer — it will be interesting to see if Walsh decides to keep herself at arm’s length from the listener for the album’s duration.

PLAYING THE BAY: Oakland’s Skip the Needle Are Done Holding Anything Back

photo by Irene Young.

As Bay Area music industry veterans, the four members of Skip the Needle have run the gamut through the bullshit and, according to the lead single from their newest full-length project, they ain’t never going back.

“We Ain’t Never Going Back” is the title track from Skip the Needle’s forthcoming full-length album, out tomorrow on Bandcamp, and it serves as veritable tour through the band’s frustrations, verging on pure cathartic rage. The song begins with a crunchy riff before bassist Vicki Randal catapults her way into the song with a “Sabotage”-worthy scream. Speaking of the Beastie Boys, the song actually does remind me of “Fight For Your Right,” but the shit-kicking teenage boy rebellion of that party classic is replaced by some very real sentiment on the power of resistance and anger.

Not that the shit-kicking isn’t there. For the song’s chorus, all four members (who will, according to the band’s website, rotate lead vocals on the full-length) join in, screaming NO! in response to some unanswered question — or possible demand — for their reticence.

Do what the cops say/don’t talk, don’t think, don’t fight, don’t feel! serves as the pre-chorus, leading us to a final we ain’t never going back call-and-response punctuated by the very old-school rock posturing of the band, seen in full glory in a video of their performance at the El Rio bar in San Francisco. As drummer Kofy Brown snarls into the mic and guitarist Shelley Doty whips her dreads in tandem with the beat, guitarist Katie Cash tips her chin to the sky before exchanging a look with Randal, a millisecond of pause before they gather the energy to end the thing on Randal’s backbend, clapping and cheering more for each other than for themselves.`

Their self-titled debut EP, also their last major release, came out in 2014. A brief listen shows, unsurprisingly, a much softer, occasionally restrained rock offering. But the tumult of the past five years has stripped away the patience of the best of us, and Skip the Needle is clearly ready to let their new full-on instrumentals and vocal delivery work as a one-two punch, upping the strength and passion of their political lyrics.

I liked the song on first listen, but it took that grainy video for me to appreciate it fully. You can feel the women’s ease — with each other, with the crowd —and if anything compels you to check out the album, let it be the pure satisfaction of watching those historically forced out of traditional rock spaces — women in general, and black women in particular — supporting each other in their anger and their joy.

PLAYING THE BAY: Kevin Nichols Rocks the Hallowed Grounds of 924 Gilman

photo by Rianne Garrido.


Kevin Nichols wanted to know how much time he had left on stage.

“Till you puke!” cried the man behind me.

This was met with silence, perhaps one nervous laugh, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the purity of an old punk sentiment in a an old punk stomping ground, even as it was delivered to a distinctly new punk audience.

On a Sunday night at the end of June, 924 Gilman (aka the Alternative Music Foundation) hosted the record release show for Oakland’s Rex Means King, who released their first full length album Semantics on June 28th. The final opener, Kevin Nichols preceded their set for a scant but tight half hour, certainly long enough to have me messaging Slumped to thank them for the rec.

Nichols was unquestionably the live wire of his three-man stage ensemble, his accompanying guitarist and drummer content to bring some serious crunch while letting Nichols bring the energy and emotion. Later, he told me he was exhausted from working all day but had come straight to the Gilman afterward.

Despite the manic energy gifted to the worn and weary, Nichols chugged water (or pineapple juice?) between songs from an overlarge can of Dole. This is what I mean about the new punk — the sweat, blood, and tears are still there, but no one wants to see you puke on stage — they want to see you fight through the your worst impulses and still emerge with music worth spending time on.

924 Gilman is the perfect place to observe the effects of such a transition. Its walls are graffitied and stickered down to the minute inch, the performance floor edged with ratty couches and chairs. I sat through most of the show, bookended by three younger boys, one of whom was wearing noise-dampening earphones.

The Gilman has been a Berkeley mainstay since 1986, operated by the nonprofit Alternative Music Foundation. Everyone is required to buy a yearly membership card at the door ($2) along with the show fee, a long-time tradition to remind show-goers that this is their venue, too, if they so choose to attend one of the bimonthly membership meetings.

photo by Rianne Garrido.


I had not, in my 25 years of living in Berkeley, attended a show at the Gilman. It felt odd to enter a space that would have been so eminently foreign to me as a teenager, but felt absolutely welcoming to me as an adult. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and it took me ten years of life experience to develop the music taste I have now. Nevertheless, I still felt some misplaced sadness for 15-year-old me, who had only a peripheral idea that such a space existed and was simply too limited by my own perceptions to have taken advantage.

One of the great things about the space is that no inch of the Gilman escapes commentary. “30 fucking years of 924 Gilman” is scrawled is sloppy letters over the stage, and the women’s bathroom hosts stickers on the toilet seat while messages of love, rage, and everything in between surround from all sides, letters inside secrets inside notes inside declarations.

Nichols, I found, had a similar experience of appreciation for the men’s. It’s always the bathroom, we agreed. It’s always the place where you have to stop and take in the grunge for what it is — not a messy sprawl of disconnect, but a canvas of experience, like little fortune cookies from this and that person’s life, scribbled between songs or at the end of a long sweaty night.

Nichols is not a furious performer. He does not spit words out without regard for where (or on whom) they land. He is more restrained than that, which isn’t to say he is holding back; moreso that he wants to put on a show without losing himself entirely.

His last EP, Long Lungs, documents a heartbreak in four succinct rocks songs well-rounded enough that they feel like a much more substantial tracklist. Even with the short, staccato lines in “Carrion Crow,” Nichols and his bandmates Sam (bass) and Elliot (drums) take us on a rollicking, head-banding journey that ends with a instrumental lead-out with the fizzing intensity of popping open an over-shaken soda can. While “Crow” is my favorite off the EP, “Easy Way Out” packs a great closing punch, a song equal parts fighting and pleading with Nichols switching between vocal deliveries with ease.

During his set, the three baseball cap-wearing men standing in front of me would occasionally let themselves knock lightly into one another’s shoulders, their bodies slipping into some classic punk-show footwork before clapping each other on the back and embracing, knees still bouncing to the music.

When I asked Nichols after the show how the Bay Area has impacted his music, he told me without hesitation that he came for the support and camaraderie, a feeling of authentic community that he felt his old stomping grounds (Orange County) distinctly lacked. There was no moment last night when I did not feel that sentiment reflected in the audience, in Nichols, in Rex Means King, in those three boys hugging as their hair fell in messy strands from their caps.

If this is new punk, I’m happy to even be late for the ride.

Nichols’s local band recs: Lawn Chairs // Mall Walk // Preschool // Small Crush // Grumpster

Follow Nichols on Facebook for show and release updates.

Send band recs/praise/miscellany to @norcalgothic on Instagram.

TRACK OF THE WEEK: Phosphene “Be Mine”

 Phosphene Band
Phosphene is an indie rock band from Oakland, CA. They recently debuted their new single “Be Mine” from an upcoming EP slated to come out later this year. Phosphene consists of Matt Hemmerich (drums), Rachel Frankel (vocals, guitar), and Kevin Kaw (bass, guitar). The shoegaze influence clicks like a pair of scuffed once-studded black leather boots as Frankel observes: “You are past prime to be a star.”  Like all great art, the words invoke my own personal narrative, an interpretation imagining an unemployed ex lazily wandering through a museum in the afternoon. “You still waste time on fine art.”  What’s certain is that Phosphene hasn’t past their prime, but are rather emerging from the shadows they’ve created with their dark dream pop for a clear morning of clear headed fans agreeing: Yes, we enjoy this. Bring us more.
You’ll have to wait for news about their upcoming EP, but until then take a listen to “Be Mine” below:

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