I've Got a Feeling That We're Here to Stay: Dance Gavin Dance's Jon Mess Gets on with His Life
From Sacto to the world.
Photo Credit: Kevin Cortopassi
Dance Gavin Dance is a band that's been through some shit. From a musical perspective, the group delivers quirky, technically-challenging post-hardcore that utilizes humor in a generally morose genre. But outside of the music, the Sacramento band has gone through a carousel of different members, most famously Jonny Craig who once involved himself in fraudelent MacBook selling in order to feed a drug habit. He dropped, the band perservered, and eventually found solace in former Tides of Man and kinda-sorta-for-five-seconds Saosin singer Tillian Pearson. 2013's Acceptance Speech—a record that pushed on their weirder elements—was their first outing together under the same flag.
Now, Dance Gavin Dance is back with a new album called Instant Gratification, a record that sets out to give what it says on the tin. Jon Mess's and Pearson's vocals intertwine with each other and create vocal dissoances that become abrasive or gentle with the flick of a wrist. Pearson sounds better than ever, his higher-than-heaven vocals being able to deliver pop-ready melodies and head rattling post-hardcore intensity at will. Instead of focusing on making riffs and harmonies for the sole sake of showing off some technical skill, Will Swan's guitar playing has always been a means and a tool to express feelings and moods. A riff can go from the soil to the stars—all meaning something. The record touches on themes of narcissism and delusion, ideas which have intersected with the band's personal history in choice of singers.
Their scream guy Jon Mess has remained one of the most stark and unique voices in the genre. Instead of recounting how sad he was when his girlfriend left him, he speaks on how weird and generally bizarre the idea of "relevancy" in a genre rooted in counterculture is. His lyrics piece together strange and pleasing words to create lines that can sonically puncture. We caught up with him to talk about the new record, what "scene" means, and life.
NOISEY: It was interesting, growing up in San Francisco listening to your music. Sacramento was like “the promised land” for that kind of music, and generally scene kid capital. Looking back at the mid-2000s, was it weird being in the box of “scene band”?
Jon Mess: Yeah, it was definitely weird. We started at the tail end of the first era of post-hardcore, the end of Thursday, At The Drive In, Blood Brothers, Glassjaw, Thrice, all those bands. And then there was the new wave of accessible and poppy metalcore came out. At the time our management company The Artery Foundation had The Devil Wears Prada, A Day To Remember, and a whole bunch of bands that were blowing up at that time, so we got thrown on a lot of those tours. I felt like we shared elements with them, but at the same time it’s weirder. I think it ended up being good for us rather than going the indie-elitist route.
So looking at this new record Instant Gratification, there’s a lot that’s going on. What do you consider to be the biggest movement from Acceptance Speech?
I think people will immediately notice the recording sounds a lot different, the treatment of vocals is different, but in terms of just songwriting a lot of the songs are more standard structure. We have a handful of songs with three choruses, a few songs with typical verse chorus, and a handful of weird ones. It relates to Acceptance Speech in that I felt like we had our poppier songs and heavier songs, and this album goes in different directions. It panders to the audience, while still being indulgent to an extent.
Do you feel like you have to pander to your audience when writing?
I think you start thinking about that after you have a number of albums. “Oh we did that before, people didn’t like that, this is what people like, this didn’t turn out as well, we shouldn’t do that.” So to an extent I think you start to intuitively do it, and you don’t realize. Or to what extent you consider that, and looking at other bands before us. I think Thursday is a good example. I was reading some of the recent interview about their inner turmoil from moving from Victory to a Major, and then changing their sound and trying to sell records and whatnot. Will [Swan] and I were talking about that, how we always thought completely drastically changing your sound is risky. I don’t think we’ve ever wanted to do with it, but whenever there’s a drastic sound change it has something to do with what’s going on in the band, inner-turmoil or whatever. We’ve had so many singer changes that we felt like we want to keep things cohesive instrumentally, so to make the change wouldn’t be so jarring, although I do think all the songs sound different.
What stood out to me on this record was it seemed like the subversion of “the hardcore band’s pop record.” Like that song “Awkward,” it sounds almost J-Pop in that first part, and then there’s a breakdown with the classic post-hardcore dissonant chord thing going, except it just repeats over and over to where it becomes a weird texture in the song.
Yeah, definitely, I think that’s pretty accurate. Will called “Awkward” a throwback to the “traditional” post-hardcore with the breakdown and stuff. I don’t even know anymore, because the term post-hardcore is such a weird phrase. What does post mean? Are you responding to hardcore, rejecting hardcore, the extension of hardcore, the progression of hardcore? But yeah we have a number of songs on the record that were intended, like Will talks a lot about writing for the singer and Tillian has been a lot more pop oriented lately, so there’s choruses that set up more catchier melodies and there’s definitely the weirder tracks on the record.
There's a misguided opinion that your lyrics are random, when it seems to me everything is calculated so there's more resonance sonically. For example, there's a line off the last record—“cold blocks pop, concocts an instant freeze”—that's quite poignant. How do you respond to people interpreting them as random?
People say they’re random or meaningless because they pick out the most nonsensical lyrics to them. There’s definitely lyrics that are meaningful, ones that go with the song, ones that just play with aliteration and different verbal devices the way words flow together. A lot of the time the lyrics reflect on the way I think the guitars or instrumentals sound, like a lot of time Will’s guitar is really quirky and I base the sound of the lyrics on that song. I approach the subject in a number of ways, so when people say “oh it’s random!” they’re just picking out specific things. Going between things that make sense and can be interpreted is interesting to me, I don’t think lyrics always need to make sense to be interesting. People get caught up in narrative, “there needs to be a story!” and I guess it bothers people that aren’t used to weirder art.
When you’re surrounded by different bands whose main approach is like “I need to write exactly how I’m feeling in these lyrics for the most people,” it confuses a lot of people when you veer off that path.
Yeah, writing like that can get boring, or you just run out of feelings to write about. Just the craft of putting interesting words together is fun to do. I think I maintain that I want to have fun being in the band rather than being super serious all the time. That's another thing: I think people think of post-hardcore as a dark, brooding, epic emotional experience. So when we have moments of irony or satire it throws people off.
This is your seventh record. How do you keep dipping into that creative well and find things that still excite you after all this time?
I don’t really find it that difficult, I mean I have a Word document where I just have hundreds of pages of writing and stuff so I always find it fun to play around with words and stuff. I’ve gotten to a place where I’ve used a lot of different phrases, and trying to come up with new things like “am I simplifying too much? Complicating too much?” I get into that mode. I was thinking about the next album because I don’t really know where we’d go next. Depends where Will starts off writing. But taking breaks is always important, I work in spurts with painting and writing and playing guitar. Staying balanced. A lot of people get burnt out that’s just you and your mind, so being aware is important, like noticing the ebb and flow of your creative energy. I’ve been pretty consistant with not falling off and not being able to get anything done.
Has that always been the case when you started writing, or did you have to work up to that level?
I’ve always been the kid in art class that made a lot of stuff. I thought for a lot of people making stuff is based around fear, like I help teach classes at Sacramento State in art, and that’s one of the things I always recommend people to read this book Art and Fear. I felt like so many people were like “I’m so scared to do this and I’m afraid will people will think” and creating is so much about just making it, and if it sucks just move on. I have hundreds of paintings and there’s tons of them that are terrible. But to get better you just have to keep moving.
Do you think the band and your goals have changed drastically over the past ten years?
Definitely. I quit the band due to, well, I developed Lyme’s Disease and then went into a period of treatment for it, and then it went into remission. But at the time when I quit it was the transition between Jonny and Kurt. I was having all these problems with my voice and I was like, “fuck this, we’re going with a new singer and the band’s not going to be as big, this is dead.” When I came back, I went on the last tour with Kurt and we were going to break up the band if we didn’t get Jonny back to try out the Downtown Battle Mountain II thing. We didn’t know at the time his drug situation, so during recording I made all the lyrics probably the most out there of anything I’d done, and reflect the situation being with him. That period was like, “Guys, I’m not sure what’s going on. This seems hopeless.” Then the transition period to Tillian; there’s the transition to being smaller and not knowing how it’s going to work out. There was this constant flow of having to “prove ourselves” because we were at the brink of breaking up. That’s kind of been a motivator to keep making music. We have so much music because we have to keep putting stuff out with the new singers so we stay relevant and don’t fall off. There’s a lot of anxiety in the history in the band, a lot of “why is this happening” kind of thing.
Has the constant state of flux in the band pushed you to work harder or was it just annoying?
It’s been such a long period of time. It’s definitely been frustrating, annoying, and confusing. We’ve seen the band go up and down, up and down in terms of draw. Now we’re almost back up to where we were, our peak was Downtown Battle Mountain II, the tour after that and Warped Tour. But now we’re approaching where that was. The industry tends to write you off when you lose buzz or flatline. I guess we felt like we were snubbed by different parties in the sense of being written off, and being accused of harboring a drug addict. Going through all those ups and downs, and it makes sense looking from the outside in, like who has three different singers each with two albums.
It was weird when that All Stars Tour happened and you had to convert to Secret Band midway through, and there was a firestorm of hate to the band, even though you had no control over it.
Yeah definitely, we got a lot of shit for having him in the band at that time. We brought him in and immediately went to record an album. We didn’t realize he was addicted to heroin, we suspected there was an addiction and we knew his issues from the past, but we didn’t realize how full blown it was. Then the MacBook thing happened, like, “Okay we already have the headliner booked so we’ll go through with this.” Then we did two weeks in the UK which went well, then immediately to Warped Tour upon which all of Warped staff realized his disposition and got him into rehab. Like after the first headliner we got him into a detox. Basically the whole career of his return was just, “OK, we’re gonna try this out. OK, it’s kind of working. Let's try this one more time.” Just all these little second chances, and it came to ahead after the third or fourth tour. We weren’t “harboring him,” we were trying to keep getting him help. It’s a weird situation to be in, because you feel bad for the addict suffering, and then you feel bad to see the shit he’s doing to other people.
Is it disheartening where the band’s coverage oftentimes revolves around the singer, and being thrown aside in situations like that?
It’s been annoying. We’ve had a lot of people that just thought we sucked, and then they’re like “man I never listened to you guys! I thought you were just some scene band with an asshole singer, but the guitars are great.” We’ve been pigeonholed, and our music becomes irrelevant because of the drama around it. But that stuff seems to be fading away the more we make music and keep going.
What period in the band do you feel like the band has been the most misunderstood?
That’s a tough one. I think Acceptance Speech is particularly confusing for a lot of people. We gained a lot of new fans, and I think lost some fans. Also Downtown Battle Mountain II because people expected some epic, return kind of sound. I don’t know, every era has been confusing I guess. Like there’s Happiness with Will screaming and only two original members. During the first Downtown Battle Mountain, it was super hopeful. We were getting feedback from industry people like, “Wow, this album! You guys are going to do so well!” And then when we kicked [Jonny Craig] out the first time, everyone was like, “You guys are so fucking stupid. You ruined the perfect set up.”
Are you happy where the band is right now in time in the spectrum of music and who you guys tour with?
I mean now we tour in a van. We used to tour in a bus but it didn’t make sense for the level we were at. We run a smooth tour and make a little more money than some of the other bands at our size because we cut a lot of expenses, crew, production, and what not. In terms of where we are financially I’m happy, but I hope we can grow off this album. It would be difficult for us to exist if we don’t get a little bit larger, I mean I’m gonna be 30 later this year. The band needs to keep moving upwards or we’re faced with the decision with how full time we can make it.
Do you like getting older?
I’m coming to terms with it, yeah. I’m starting to feel like I’m in a generation above. We’re on tour with this band Crown The Empire and they’re all in their early 20s and I’m in a generation older than them. I see a lot of trends that I don’t care about, but I used to care about. In the grand scheme of things I’m not old, but in the music industry as a band member I’m starting to feel old. Like if I’m 35 in this band we’re not doing better than we are now, I don’t like the idea of that.
If someone’s coming back from like taking a break since Downtown Battle Mountain II, and they came back to this record, how would you hope they take this record?
That’d be crazy to be that person, cause I’d imagine they’d think we were a different band. I think I’m too invested inside of the band to imagine that perspective. I’d hope they think the album is just the evolution of….. fuck, I have no idea. [laughs] I haven’t really figured out what this album is yet. Will keeps saying it’s the evolution, but some of it feels simplified or more accessible and refined. So yeah, maybe we refined our sound.
What do you think the meaning of life is?
Balance, awareness, and trying to remove anxiety and fear from your life.
What are you afraid of the most?
Pre-order Dance Gavin Dance's new record here.
John Hill looks better than anyone, and can do it when he's having fun. Follow him on Twitter @JohnxHill