An Uplifting Conversation with Spraynard in America's Most Depressing Place, an Applebee's Bar
We talked to the sort-of-reunited band in suburbia's finest chain restaurant about their new album, 'Mable.'
The Applebee’s in North Wales, Pennsylvania is a miserable place to be on a rainy, muggy, Sunday afternoon. I’ve spent the last 45 minutes on a Twilight Zone drive from New Jersey with no air conditioning. These stretches of suburban highway always look the same. There’s always multiple fast food chains, a family restaurant, a department store, a couple of supermarkets, and maybe a Guitar Center. Save for a couple of doctors’ offices and locally-owned businesses, this road looks like it was planned in a Walmart boardroom.
Once inside I head for the bar, a sweaty mess of a man debating whether or not to order an Applebee’s Bahama Mama before noon. I was self-conscious until I noticed the bar’s other lone patron: a middle-aged woman, face in hands, weeping.
Walking in just in time to save me from myself and a Texas-sized Bahama Mama is two-thirds of Spraynard, the socially-conscious, family-restaurant-loving pop punk band, who will release their long-awaited new record, Mable, next month on Jade Tree Records. From the first track, aptly titled “Applebee’s Bar,” to the last, it’s clear that despite the band’s year-long hiatus in 2013, they haven’t missed a step.
We flip aimlessly through the menu for a few seconds, catching glimpses of Double Crunch Bone-in Wings and something called a Triple Hog Dare Ya. We listen to inoffensive pop-rock hits from the last three decades on the Applebee’s Pandora station.
“This is sick,” whispers guitarist Pat Graham as we move from the bar to our table. We’ve reached peak suburbia in all of its goofy-ass glory, a fitting place for a band who has never been shy of where they came from.
From the highway, West Chester, Pennsylvania looks identical to North Wales and to any other Philadelphia suburb you can name. It’s hard to believe that many of the Northeast punk’s most influential sounds have been cultivated amongst the families, shopping malls, and self-serve yogurt shops of the suburbs.
In the mid-90s, local legends like Plow United and Weston played countless shows in West Chester’s VFW halls and houses. Creep House, which would later be the birthplace of the first Spraynard songs, housed the studio where Kill Your Idols recorded This Is Just the Beginning...
“That house was completely falling apart,” remembers Graham. “It was just a mess, but the basement was a completely soundproofed recording studio and practice space, so I would go downstairs, play guitar and write every day.”
After the 90s came and went, the scene went quiet. Until 2008, when Spraynard—comprised of high school best friends Graham, bassist Mark Dickinson, and drummer Patrick Ware--re-opened the floodgates and put West Chester Rock City on the map. Over the last six years, the band’s presence has been huge not only in their hometown, but in places around the Mid-Atlantic and beyond.
For a long time, the band was an anomaly in that they sang the praises of suburban life rather than eschewing it for the concrete pastures of nearby Philadelphia. While most of the kids their age were complaining about suburban suffocation and fleeing for college in major cities, Spraynard and their friends rebuilt an intimate and unique scene in an area that was pretty bland, and whose other sources of entertainment included hanging out at Applebee’s or the mall.
After releasing splits with Captain! We’re Sinking and Paramedic!, Spraynard gained momentum in the local punk community. Their first record Cut & Paste (2010) brought them recognition outside of the Northeast, culminating in a deal with Asian Man Records to release Funtitled the following year. The album was a breakthrough not only for the band, but for the community they had helped build. Their arrival on the prolific and vastly influential California label signaled a shift.
They were among the first in a new line of bands to emerge from DIY scenes that were hyper-localized and community-oriented, proving that you could still reach larger audiences and get signed from the “confines” of suburbia. Spraynard’s next release came in 2013, a well-received seven-inch called Exton Square, which lead them to book three straight months of shows across North America and Europe. But the pressure of touring for months at a time had created tension within the trio. Right when fervor around the band seemed to peak, Spraynard announced they’d be taking a hiatus.
In spring of the following year, they caved to pressure from Asian Man founder Mike Park to release a compilation of the splits and demos they had done during their years as a band, as well as a brand new song. Shortly thereafter, they announced two shows in Philadelphia and nearby Malvern, PA, the latter at the batting cages where Graham and Ware still work. Both sold out within weeks.
“I’d be lying if I said we didn’t know that people were starting to get more into it near the end,” says Graham. “But when the church sold out, it was like... ‘woah.’ That’s when we decided that we wanted to do this again.”
Since their reformation, they’ve hit the ground running: from touring the world with Modern Baseball and Iron Chic, signing to legendary Delaware punk label Jade Tree Records, and changing their lineup. Dickinson decided to continue with his teaching career and was replaced by Hold Tight! guitarist Jake Guralnik.
“For us, it didn’t come down to any sort of skill level, it was just trying to figure out who we wanted to hang out with for extended periods of time,” explains Graham. “Jake was at the top of the list, and at the first practice, he knew our entire discography plus a couple of the demo songs. So that was a plus.”
Next month, Spraynard will release Mable, a record that sees the band breaking new ground both melodically and lyrically. The record’s namesake and cover model is a golden retriever that was a fixture in West Chester for years, owned by Runner Up Records’ Sean Morris. The 13-year-old companion recently passed away, but her image gracing the cover of the record is more than a tribute; it represents how the band has changed since their founding in 2009.
“Mable represents the transformation of our friendship,” says Ware. “When we first met her, Sean was an 18-year-old asshole and she was the worst dog. She was the worst. But as she got older, she mellowed out a lot. She lived with us in every house we had and hung out with us all the time.”
Earlier this year, while looking for pictures to use for the cover of the record, Graham stumbled upon a photo that Dickinson had snapped of Mable while she was sleeping.
“The realization kind of hit me that,” explains Graham, “when Mable died, Sean moved to the city and we stopped booking shows in West Chester, it was the end of something major in our lives. It was kind of a silly thing, but this record kind of harkens to the end of that era.”
Graham laughs, lightening the mood. “That lady over there,” he says looking toward the dejected-looking woman I saw earlier, “was just crying into her drink. This is the absolute saddest place.” The waitress comes over and takes our orders. Graham and Ware order confidently. When I settle on the Beer Pub Pretzels and Cheese Dip, Ware nods knowingly and says, “Those are tight.”
Over the course of our time at the thoroughly depressing Applebee’s, Graham reassures me several times that he’s not trying to be a bummer. It’s clear that he and Spraynard have come a long way from their former days of deliriously positive takes on a life full of bike rides and gig life.
“I’m 26, so heavy shit’s going on all the time,” says Graham. “Everything Spraynard did before, I always felt like I was writing the words for other people. I would imagine people singing along at shows, and I really wanted people to feel a release.”
During the hiatus, Graham tried something very different lyrically with Martin. He traded in writing anthemic songs about social issues for intensely personal explorations of his relationships with other people, trying to find a perfect balance in his songwriting.
“I decided to try and do a 180 and write songs that would confuse people because they’re only about me and about things that happen to me, kind of my own release,” he says. “On Mable, I went for the middle ground and tried to write songs that were relatable, but were mostly about personal shit that was happening.”
We get our food and our beers and a minute later, the waitress comes to ask how everything came out. “Everything’s great,” we assure her. About a minute after that, the waitress comes back again to ask how everything came out. “Yeah, this is great, thank you,” Ware repeats. We have indeed entered The Twilight Zone.
It’s clear that the band’s collective head was at a much different place when they started writing Mable. Gone were the days of trying to convince themselves that every bad thing that happened would be okay as long as they had their friends and their skateboards. This time around, they’re letting the darkness sink in a bit more.
“I think when you’re young,” says Graham, “it’s easy to be like ‘whatever’ all the time. It’s a lot easier to not think about how crappy the world is. I’m not trying to be a bummer, but I want to start thinking critically about things and in order to do that, you have to get a little dark.”
“What’s the use in trying to survive?” sings Graham on “Pond.” Instead of trying to erase pain with positivity, as was the protocol on Funtitled, Graham meets it head on with Mable. “I originally had a positive part after that chorus and I just cut it, like, ‘eh,’” he says with a shrug. “The point is that the world is sad, so you don’t need the reassuring thing. You just need to revel in it.”
Anti-macho bullshit anthem “Listen to Me” tackles a familiar subject matter for Graham and today’s DIY scene. “I run into this thing a lot at shows,” Graham says between bites of his salad, “where a guy is with a girl who he may or may not be dating, and he’ll introduce himself and not even acknowledge that she’s there,” he says. The band has made a point throughout their career to call out shitty behavior on all fronts. At their FEST set last year, Ware stopped playing drums upon seeing a kid ready himself to stagedive off of a platform onto a packed crowd. “No, do not do that,” he yelled. “You will hurt people.”
The album’s first track, the appropriately named “Applebee’s Bar,” announces Spraynard’s return in a big way. It marries the anthemic melodies that the band is loved for with flashes of their personal and musical growth since Exton Square. The opening lines, “I used to think I was a savior, a part of a cause / now see I am nothing, no nothing at all,” are a great introduction to the new Spraynard.
Applebee’s, in spite of its comedic value, is some sort of metaphor for some of the personal and political themes investigated on Mable. But at its core, the reference to Applebee’s is just a sort of dumb joke.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to lock myself in a studio and do a record,” says Graham, “so we asked Mike [Bardzik, the band’s producer on Mable and most of their recordings] if we could do that, despite living ten minutes away, and we went absolutely insane. We’d come up with these terrible jokes...I was talking about how I like Applebee’s, and how it’s America’s thing, and that’s kind of sad. But I don’t know, man,” he says before admitting, “I legitimately like the food here.”
In a weird way, Spraynard is also America’s thing, coming up at the same time as other DIY bands like Algernon Cadwallader and inspiring kids in small towns around the country, off the map places like Cohoes, New York or Flemington, New Jersey to work on starting or improving their own scenes, and throwing out the idea that it’s okay to be content with staying in your community, no matter how large or small.
“It used to be that our whole thing as a band was like, “Screw the city, we’re in the suburbs, we’re not going to leave, we’re going to build something here’,” says Graham. “But part of this record is, ‘I’m 26, I’m still in the suburbs… is that okay?’”
Feelings about one’s hometown is a trope common in pop punk, but as Graham explores on this record, there are real political ramifications to making a decision on deciding where to live, and often, there’s larger consequences to be felt than suburban boredom.
“Our friends are living in black people’s neighborhoods, jacking up their rent and making them move out, and I’m in the suburbs surrounded by rich white people, and it’s kind of like… Well, which of us is right?”
He seems to come to a conclusion to one of the record’s big existential crises. “I’m a middle class white person,” he said. “I’m at Applebee’s, but I’m supposed to be here.” Spraynard’s been providing answers to kids looking for an outlet in punk for years. And even as they’re putting a new lens on the same issues they’ve always talked about, they’re still asking the same questions.
We pay the bill and head for the door. My beer lays unfinished on the table. I’m proud that I didn’t finish my mid-Sunday afternoon booze, and none of us ended up crying in it despite talking about dead pets, dissolving friendships, and gentrification for an hour. As we say our goodbyes, Graham asks about an upcoming show in New Jersey. I tell him that they should come up, and he thinks about it for a second before replying, “Yeah. That would be sick.”
As they wave goodbye and head back to Malvern for a shift at Grand Slam, I realize that for all of the ragging we’ve done on Applebee’s, it shares one important trait with the punk community we grew up in: You can find it anywhere.
Paul Blest will have the jalepeno poppers. Follow him on Twitter - @pblest