Drug Church’s Patrick Kindlon on Selling Out, Being Hated, and Getting Mad Online
The frontman gets brutally honest about the band's new album, 'Cheer,' and the consequences of making art on your own terms.
Photos by Kat Nijmeddin
From the very start, Drug Church never had any delusions of being a popular band. They jokingly described themselves as a Seaweed worship act, while releasing songs called “Reading YouTube Comments” and “Shopping for a Belt.” Their music ebbed toward the heavier side of grunge-inspired punk music, and vocalist Patrick Kindlon told seedy stories about society’s underbelly. But with their new album, Cheer, things couldn’t be more different.
Cheer feels like the culmination of all the work the band has put in over the past half-decade, but with a new, poppier spin to it. The songs still have the heavy bounce of their early material, but as “Avoidarama,” “Unlicensed Guidance Counselor,” and “Weed Pin” all show, Drug Church has found ways to present their mutated version of alt-rock as pop music. There’s still plenty of dirt there, but for the first time in their career, Drug Church have cleaned themselves up just enough to maybe crossover into a more pop-oriented lane. Of course, that’s if any rock band is capable of doing such a thing.
This year, Kindlon’s other band, Self Defense Family, released Have You Considered Punk Music?, an album-length rumination on what is sacrificed when people pursue creative fulfillment above all else. And in a way, Cheer feels like a companion piece to that. His lyrics address the struggle of making your way in the world when you aren’t particularly skilled, but presents it like some sort of celebration. In essence, Cheer bucks back against Darwinist theories, proving that sometimes even idiots can make something of value.
That’s why, in talking to Kindlon, it felt important to discuss not just the record, but the band’s larger motivations, too. In the 90s, for a band to make a record this clean and radio-friendly, they’d get labeled sellouts and run out of their scene. But in 2018, that’s a shot plenty of bands are taking without anyone batting an eye. So how does a band split the difference, making an album meant for a different audience without sacrificing themselves in the process? That’s what Kindlon gets into, while going off on a handful of tangents in the process. But it all drives home the point that the best art doesn’t work in half-measures. And Cheer is proof of that.
Noisey: When did everyone in Drug Church start to realize that there was a chance to make a bigger, cleaner record this time around?
Patrick Kindlon: It’s the most pedestrian answer in the world, but people kept giving us money. [Laughs] And when people keep giving you money, you’re like, “Damn. What am I supposed to do with it?” As people, we’re too stupid to put it in our pockets, so we’re like, “I guess we’ll spend it on recording like we’re supposed to.” By virtue of that, you arrive at something at least a little slicker. But also, multiple members of the band are fans of that type of post-grunge, major-label shit-rock. They love all that stuff in the post-Nirvana signing binge that the major labels did. That’s never been my lane, so they’re actually legitimate fans of that more accessible work. So I guess on a long enough timeline, some of that was bound to manifest.
I don’t know if it’s going to be a separate question, but the vocals being a little bit more palatable on this record is a direct result of money. That’s just the fact that I’ve never spent more than four hours on vocals and, this time, I spent multiple days. I’d go in and, if I sounded like shit, we’d wait a few hours. If I sounded like shit after a couple hours, we’d be like, “Alright, let’s do that the next day.” Again, it’s a boring answer, because it’s not like we sat down and said, “How can we profit here?” It was really just, “Oh, hey, we have more money. What the hell are we supposed to do with that?” The Self Defense model, when we have more money, is to record 65 songs, but the Drug Church thing was like, “I guess we now have to make them sound good.”
Speaking of the vocals, I know your general approach is to always go in unprepared and just write lyrics on the spot. Was it different this time, or did you still just go in blind?
This does not speak highly of me at all, but I still wrote everything in the studio. Because even though we had so much time, just nothing happens for me until I feel real stressed out. Having the recording stretched out for multiple days, I’d go in and maybe have an idea for a chorus, realize that it sucked, sit down with time ticking and just write the lyrics in the studio. But the difference was, this time, if I messed it up, I could come back the next day. I also gotta say, a huge part of it is John Markson, the engineer—his patience is next level. I’m terrible, and he got some really good takes.
I’ve been getting two responses when people hear this record: “When did you learn how to sing?” and then “nice Auto-Tune.”
Very flattering compliments there.
Right. And the truth is, for 99 percent of the record, it’s neither of those. I didn’t learn how to sing, and there’s only one Auto-Tune moment that I can identify on the record. The rest of it is just literally dozens of takes. [Laughs] I think the engineer really enjoyed it, because I never get touchy. If you tell me to do the same part 55 times, I’ll do it. I think most engineers are afraid to ask for that, as most people do find it, at some point, kind of annoying.
Here’s the interesting thing about my voice that he picked up on: If you have me do 30 takes, there’s going to be 19 different approaches there because I am that bad at vocals. So it gave him a lot to work with in the respect that there was some variety he could pull from, and he made something good verse to verse. There’s a lot of takes. For anybody at home, trust me, I didn’t learn to be good at anything. [Laughs]
It’s funny, because there’s a line on the Self Defense record from this year about whether it’s possible to dedicate your life to something and get no better at it. And I guess this is kind of proof that you can. But this record, lyrically, is about people who are ill-suited to a certain kind of work just pushing through it, or suffering through it, just because. How much are those two concepts related to you?
I would say there is a connection but, on both records, in different ways. Drug Church takes a lighter approach, but both records are, in some respects, me confronting the fact that I’ve never been particularly good at the thing I’ve devoted a third of my life to. On the Self Defense record, I probably get a little defiant about it and say, “Kiss my ass.” On the Drug Church record, it’s saying, “Isn’t it funny that I can’t get any better at this?” Everything that I find most fulfilling in life, I don’t happen to have any great skill at. I’m the guy who suits up with sweatbands on my head and plays intramural Frisbee golf at too competitive of a level. I’m the guy who is no fun, because I’m bad at a thing but I take it terribly seriously. [Laughs]
"I’m the guy who is no fun, because I’m bad at a thing but I take it terribly seriously."
What’s interesting to me about Cheer is how making a record like this is way more accepted than it was 10 or 20 years ago. In the 90s, people would call this your sellout record.
Yeah, and then you’re Jawbreaker and 20 years later people are telling you that’s your best record.
Yeah, exactly. What makes you think this idea of selling out is no longer really part of the conversation in punk or hardcore?
There’s probably a multitude of reasons. Maybe on some subconscious level, people realize that if they want to continue to enjoy a thing, the people making it have to be able to eat food. But that might be giving people too much credit at the same time. I think, honestly, and this sounds like a very cynical answer, but I think people just have a very mob mentality toward what they’re supposed to care about in a given time. It was the zeitgeist for music lovers to care, and to have this strong response to a pop approach to things and push back. I think people just picked other bullshit to care about.
This sounds so shitty and cynical, but having observed the world and witnessed as much as I can like The Watcher from the Moon, people just get worked up, then they get married and they forget that they were worked up. You can go from one moral panic to the next when you’re talking about subculture. For maybe 15 years it was very strongly an anti-capitalist thing. And it’s not like people were diehard Marxists, they were just responding to something in the air about how you should not want money or success if you’re an artist. And now those people care about other shit. They care about their kids. The young person now, I think it’s totally alien for a young person to care about an artist trying to make their money. I think that’s good and bad. I’m one of these guys who feels like touring musicians risk their lives to play shows. I’ve watched two people die this year on the road—it’s much more dangerous than people think. I think touring musicians really should be getting paid more than they are, so I’m really an advocate for everybody making more money. But at the same time, the kind of weird acceptance of pop as a positive thing is very confused. To me, that’s still never going to be my sensibility. Maybe I’m conflicted on it because I’m stuck between two eras, as I’m old enough to remember when people cared about that shit, but I’m also currently playing music in 2018, so I see the other reality too.
I mean, it’d be really weird for a lot of people in this current landscape to say, “You should starve and die for my entertainment.” But conversely, does that mean people are more willing to let certain things slide because they don’t want to cut at people’s livelihoods?
I think that’s partially true, but I also think that the youth culture that exists at the moment isn’t a response to pop music, it’s a subset of it. When I got into punk and hardcore music, it was very much a response, an angry reply to that mainstream pop world. I put out hardcore records, I do a podcast about hardcore music, it’s a big part of my life, but increasingly, it’s not a huge force in young people’s lives. People are gravitating toward things that we’ll vaguely call “bedroom rap.” That is an interesting youth culture, because that is not a rejection of pop, it’s just a sidebar to it. It’s not a “fuck you” to that, it’s about putting your toes in this water, but your aims are the same as any other career musician, which is to be successful and make money. It’s just being done in the style of the day. Even if we’re talking about the sort of punk-adjacent stuff going on right now, it feels much more like a branch on the pop tree than it does a response to it. There’s no competition for the hearts and minds of young people, it’s an individual competition of, “I want to be successful and here’s what I have available to do that.” You might find some guy who’s been doing an indie or punk hour at a college radio station for 35 years who feels strongly about these things, but young people are not as actively engaged in the sellout conversation.
Lyrically, this record kind of discusses the current social climate in a fascinating way, like, “There’s a guy in a group chat with Klansmen telling you how to live.” That’s a very specific reference, so how did you bring that kind of thing in?
It’s been a topic that’s been on my mind lately because I don’t know how to conduct myself in that way. The example I always use is Nicki Minaj’s Instagram. I reference it a lot because, to me, it’s a very telling thing. She may not be a particularly good example, because recently she’s been saying a lot about the way she is perceived. I’m not a particularly big fan of her music, I just happened across her Instagram one day and was fascinated by all the people lying about her in her comments section. And I say “lying about her” because they’re saying things that couldn’t possibly be true. They’re saying that they used to pimp her out of a Motel 6 in Maryland or whatever, and it’s just clearly not true. But she has people lying on her all the time, and to me that’s fascinating. Because it’s like, “Oh right. My life in this smaller music world cannot really compare.”
Imagine if I became visible in a larger way tomorrow, or successful in a larger way tomorrow, I would be very ill-prepared. I come from a world where, if someone says something that offends you enough, you respond to it directly. I’m not talking about beating anybody up, I’m just talking about a confrontation where they need to answer for that. And you can’t do that when you are a figure. You can’t do that when you’re really big. What’s fascinating to me is, the older that I get, I do appreciate that approach of saying, “Look, I have a lot of moving parts in my life, and somebody misunderstanding me or taking me in the worst possible spirit, it just can’t occupy that much space in my brain.” I saw a tweet where someone misunderstood me onstage on every level, and it made me worried this person might have a head wound or some shit. But what’s the purpose in correcting one strange person? But there’s this other part of me that I’m coming to grips with, and it’s that that person has the right to be an idiot. They got a right to be confused about some shit. That’s the interesting perspective that time gives you. Your knee-jerk response to somebody in a ten-second moment of their life, and hoping to apply that to them largely, what if somebody did that to you?
For me, the last couple years have been very instructive. Seven years ago, everybody was trying to be as offensive as they could be. Then in the past five years, particularly around the election, people went the other way and tried to be as sensitive as they could to other people’s feelings. And what’s discouraging about that polarity switch is that it feels not like an evolution, it feels like we’re taking turns. Like I said about people getting bored of the major label sellout conversation, people just got bored of everything being offensive so they decided nothing could be. Now we’re probably going to swing back to everything being offensive, because people just get bored. Young people, in particular, always want to be the response to the thing that was before them. Whatever somebody was doing eight years before you, you think that is the lamest shit that has ever existed, no matter how good or bad it was. As an adult, you can look at it more objectively and say, “I railed against that because I needed to assert my own identity. But I’m a multi-faceted individual above all, and I can pick and choose what I like from any era or any particular set of beliefs.”
If there’s any of those moments on the record, they’re still trying to be fun and light, I’m not trying to lecture anybody. But I also think that shit is kind of scary if you actually care about any of the things that are going on in the moment. When you make something risible, you make it dismissable. The more that hypocrisy becomes blatant, the more that people just tune out. There are a couple issues of the day that I really fucking care about, and I’ve basically given up on making any progress because there will be more progress made being behind the eight ball than being the leader of the pack right now, because being the leader of the pack looks ridiculous. I don’t mean to sound like The Watcher sitting on the Moon and acting like I have no role in humanity, but watching the zeitgeist switch at such a rapid pace over the last five years has been, for me, a little too confirming of what I’ve always thought, which is just that people pick a thing to care about until they have a mortgage and then they just get in Facebook arguments.
“Unlicensed Guidance Counselor” kind of hits on that a bit, with the “If you live long enough / You’ll do something wrong enough” bit in the chorus. What about that concept felt like something you could distill into a song and not have it come across as condescending or self-righteous?
I’m glad that’s the way that it registered, because there’s nothing more irritating and unfun than some dude looking back on his life and being highly didactic. I’m glad that it didn’t come off that way, because I didn’t intend it that way. But it’s just a natural fact that young people care about shit, and then that list of things you care about maybe pares down.
I watched it recently, though I guess this is ten years ago, with Occupy Wall Street. That seems totally quaint now by most people’s standards, but the core sentiment of that movement resonated with me more than any of the sentiments of the last 20 years, which was basically: “America’s middle class is rapidly going away and we’re looking at a world where people can’t invest in their future because they can’t afford to.” As a guy who was becoming an adult or whatever, I was looking at that and was like, “Yeah. That’s absolutely correct.” The anxieties that young people have about trying to pay off their student loans when they should be starting businesses—think of how many inventors aren’t sitting in a garage inventing anymore, they’re working 60-hour work weeks to feed their kids, plus pay off loans that don’t mean anything. Then you see for the majority of people involved in that movement, that was a fad. That was a thing to do for a year. And that’s what makes things a movement, otherwise they’d be a lifestyle. It moves, maybe some progress is made if we’re all lucky, but it’s the law of inertia, I guess. As long as there’s friction, the thing will eventually slow down.
Again, I don’t want to come off as cynical in this, though perhaps I am. It’s been fascinating just realizing that there are things I care about the same way I did when I was 16. Firstly, being able to laugh at those things, no matter how serious they are, is a major thing you come to after a time. You should find humor in your own intensity, even if you maintain that intensity. I’ve been vegan since I was in my teens and still feel as strongly about it today as I did then. But, personally, I like the memes as much as anybody else. You gotta be able to laugh at yourself. And more to the quote of that song, I have said so many things that got me in trouble, and there are people who just don’t like me as a person. What’s interesting about that is, when people take exception to the thing that you say or find you offensive, or you’re a public figure of any type, you get deluged with DMs from people who don’t give a fuck if you live or die, but they have a problem with your detractor, and they give you every bit of dirt on your detractor. What that has illustrated to me is, and I don’t want to get into people’s individual picadillos or bad things they’ve done, but every person who has sought to lecture me on my behavior, I’ve received a DM about them doing something three times as bad. It’s just like, at some juncture, you have to reconcile with the fact that you’re an imperfect person and that your efforts to fix another imperfect person read as you projecting, you avoiding, and worse, you just being sanctimonious. And I guess that came up on the record once or twice.
To that end, over the years with Self Defense, people have come at your over-perceived slights or things they take issue with. Since Drug Church occupies a slightly different lane, and Cheer could expand it even more, do you anticipate having to go through that all over again?
I anticipate that will probably happen. I shouldn’t say this with any confidence, because I know that some people willfully ignore facts in front of their face, but I’ve endured some level of people coming at me that way, but most people just look at the thing and go, “Yeah, I don’t care. I was never going to buy this person’s record anyway. What the fuck do I care?” Certainly Twitter has changed a lot in some respects, and some corporations and smaller companies still abide by what is being discussed there as if it’s a good marker of a general feeling, but I think that many corporations—and I’d get myself in trouble if I spoke to one in particular—kind of do the math. Sometimes it’s a general feeling, and sometimes it’s just 30 people. And sometimes it’s just one person who is very dedicated. A thing I’ve come to learn is that you can’t beat the unemployed. [Laughs] The unemployed have so much time. They’re the only people that scare me. You can’t beat a highly motivated, unemployed asshole. They’ve got all the fucking time in the world to dedicate to your life in a way they can’t dedicate to their own for some fucking reason.
Getting angry about things is totally cool. Getting angry online is a waste of your time, but it’s also fun sometimes, so fuck it. That idea that you see something you don’t like so your effort is to destroy it, I’ve seen it start to shift. As the generation that was always yelling at each other online starts to get older, they understand that the world becomes more complex. For example, so many people I saw really chopping heads off on social media a few years ago are now championing different variations of what they call restorative justice. Which is basically them saying, “All of this was fine when I was firing from cover, and now that I am exposed, now that my head is out, it’s different.” I feel like I’m watching from afar as some of these people become nuanced, thinking adults that realize life is complicated. And that’s good, because life is complicated, but some of these people spent ages 17 to 20 going all in on strangers online. I don’t wish this on anybody, but I think there might be some recompense for that behavior. Maybe not, but I think we’re going to have to hit a South African, Truth and Reconciliation course where we approach each other with our transgressions and social crimes and agree to forgive each other. Because otherwise, imagine getting murdered online for using a word that people don’t use anymore, and then you see two years later that the person who led that mob against you is in trouble of their own and is backing away from something that might be worse than what you did.
I think we’re going to have to get to a point where we talk to each other like we all fall short of the glory of good behavior. Otherwise we’re going to be out here just going in a circle of the least experienced people, who haven’t done something bad because they haven’t been alive long enough, just taking shots at people until they’re old enough to have done something bad themselves. That was kind of interesting for five years, since I just witnessed it, but I think we might be approaching a sort of social media implosion. People aren’t going to stop using social media, they’re just going to stop caring about anything that happens on it. We’re gonna see a lot of people who have done actual bad things skate by because it’s just white noise to them.
"A thing I’ve come to learn is that you can’t beat the unemployed. The unemployed have so much time. They’re the only people that scare me. You can’t beat a highly motivated, unemployed asshole."
That’s interesting, because with how prolific you are, and making records, comic books, and podcasts at a rapid clip, I wonder if that insulates you at all. Does it allow you to make a record like Cheer where no one is going to look at your motivations as being suspect because it’s just a blip in a larger body of work?
So, that’s been an interesting thing, because you get to hear my voice a lot if you’re in a certain space. I’m not unavoidable, I’m not a celebrity, but you could conceivably fill multiple hours of your day with my voice in some context or another. I think that larger body of work, as long as I’m being honest in it, it helps them view me less as a cardboard cutout. It makes me less of a thing and more of a person. People have seen enough of me that I almost feel like a real, living person to them, I’m not just the Wicker Man that they can burn. And I’m grateful for that. Because going back to the Nicki Minaj thing, imagine being Nicki Minaj and, no matter how much depth you have to who you are as a person, you are 90 percent product to the world. Even your fans, even the people who love you so much, they love an idea of you that is largely just a salable product. I don’t appreciate being treated as a product. I’m at peace with the fact that somebody’s always gonna see it that way, but I’m grateful that I make enough stuff that maybe somebody wants to treat me like a human being that’s multifaceted. Maybe if you get enough of me, maybe you get exposed to enough of me where you can see me in three dimensions.
Back to the album, how much do you care how well any one release of yours does? Say Cheer becomes a huge record or it sells zero copies and the band breaks up, how much does either outcome influence your work beyond that?
I don’t know if other people should aspire to this, it’s not good for your personal relationships and it’s not good for your finances, but for myself, there’s something clearly wrong with me where I just like doing the things I like doing. [Laughs] It’s kind of tragic to be totally frank with you, but the things I love most in life are in the worst droughts they’ve been in during my life on Earth. What I mean by that is, I love guitar music and I love comic books, and the market for those two things couldn’t be worse. If this was nuclear winter and people were just dying en masse, it couldn’t be worse for these two markets than it currently is. If I had a brain in my head, I would just do literally anything else, but I don’t. I’m like a child. I like to do the things I like to do because I find them fulfilling. Am I gonna die frozen on a park bench? Yeah, very possibly. [Laughs] But that’s what makes it a pathology.
To the idea of this being a fallow period for guitar music, do you think that being able to survive through those spells means that, when it inevitably does have its day in the sun again, you’ll reap the rewards just because you’ll have outlasted everyone else?
You know what, I was gonna say no, but at the end of it you keyed into it. The bands that outlast do technically win. If you are the last in your genre, and you’re long-lived, there’s nowhere else to look. You occupy all that space. Some bands do that, and I don’t know if they do it intentionally or just because maybe they don’t know what else to do in their lives, or they’re like me and just have this kind of personality defect, but you see that. To be honest with you, I run into people in the music industry who believe guitar music is going to rebound very shortly, and I’ve heard that a lot, but I am doing both of my careers with the understanding that, no matter what I create, I could make the ultimate sellout record and it’s not gonna change the trajectory of the market. Only the market can change the trajectory of the market.
In comic books, I’m under pressure from publishers to do something more salable, to do something more traditional. While I really understand why someone would do that, I think that it is a very small success and I think that it looks and feels like you’re trying to get in under the wire. You’ve oiled yourself up and are trying to slide under the door before it closes and everybody outsides freezes to death. I don’t know if I ever want to look that way.
The guys in Drug Church, we were talking about it, and we want to stay to a fairly consistent release schedule on LPs. We’re already talking about the next one and are already like, “Do we want to do a very hard record? Do we want to be very, very aggressive?” So while I do hear more accessibility in the record coming out, it’s interesting that even my bandmates, who have more of an instinct toward that pop thing than I do, even they are like, “Wanna say fuck it and just starve?” [Laughs] And that always makes me feel good. At the end of the day, is it nice to have a couch that is brand new? It is really nice. But, not to be the most reductive human being, people find it very frustrating how reductive I can be, but we’re all gonna get devoured by the sun soon. So at some point, you gotta do something that you personally find fulfilling. Because if you’re doing things exclusively for how they might register with other people or how it might profit materially, it’s a push at the end.
An interesting thing: A band that will remain unnamed had a record come out three years ago, and I asked the head of the label, “How’s this gonna do?” And he said, “It’s gonna do bad.” I asked him why, and he said, “They only stepped halfway in. They didn’t commit to the bit.” He had these demos of them doing this much more accessible, broad sort of thing that people would either take to or shit on, but they would have a definite opinion on. But they did the half-ass version that was a compromise to all of it. And ultimately, it made for a record that people don’t really remember. It’s interesting, because in my view, Cheer is not really the go-for-it record, but if it’s going to register with people, I’d prefer they do see it that way instead of one of those records where we didn’t commit to the bit. I’ve made so many records over my life that, in some respect, every record is just a continuation of what I’ve already done. But, insofar as the rest of the world sees it, fuck it, let’s get hated or loved.