On Hang, their first full-length album in nearly a decade, punk rockers Lagwagon sharpen their songwriting skills to deliver what is arguably the group's best album yet. The record shows an introspection and maturity that you don't hear in the band's previous releases. It's a real statement by singer Joey Cape, a guy who actually didn't set out to be a frontman.
Originally, Cape was a drummer. He says he moved to guitar "when the drums became too much to cart around." He was the guitar player in a band called Chemikill with a singer who was "difficult." The band was in the middle of making a demo. They were on the clock in a studio and the singer kept showing up late, costing them studio time.
"One day, we called him on it and he freaked out and quit," says Cape in an email interview. "The engineer suggested that the bass player and I try to lay down vocals. The bass player gave it a shot and it was cool but not quite right. I wrote the songs, so I had a small advantage. After that, I was the singer but honestly not by choice. It took some years to get used to the idea."
The punk band's popularity soared in the '90s and it was widely reported that the group was close to signing a major label deal and following in the footsteps of acts such as Offspring and Green Day. Cape says that's simply not true.
"They expressed very little interest in us," Cape says when asked about major label interest. "I consider us lucky there. Most of the bands I knew that made the jump to a major had major problems a year or two later. Fat Wreck Chords is such a great label. We have had the smoothest ride possible. Fat Wreck has always been accommodating. There was never any reason to leave."
One of the most notable differences lies with the lyrics. Cape says he took a different approach when he sat down to the write the songs that would appear on the album. He initially intended to rely on different narrators to tell the story of the current state of the world in which we live. But he scrapped that idea when it became apparent he just didn't have enough time to flesh out that concept.
"I wanted Hang to represent the current state of the band," he explains. "It was the most collaborative album to date for Lagwagon. In the past I generally brought songs that were completely arranged to the table. This time we spent far more time developing the songs together. I think there is a more cohesive feel to the record for that reason and because of the lyrics."
So what took so long to follow up the last studio full-length, 2005's Resolve?
"Sometimes it takes years to figure out what the collective identity of our band is," he says. "The band evolves, of course, but each individual member also evolves and usually in different directions. I can never successfully write without somewhat knowing what makes sense to the band. The downside of taking so many years between albums is, of course, losing momentum, but I can safely say that we have always made records that represent us well and integrity and conviction are there. I am very proud of this and still think it seems worth the wait in retrospect."
With Hang, the band gets more conceptual than it has in the past.
"I have always written lyrics to an album one song at a time," Cape explains. "A song's lyrics would be influenced by whatever issue or trauma was happening at that time in my life. With Hang I decided to write an album with central themes throughout. I wanted it to be slightly conceptual. I decided to write the lyrics about the counterparts of an overall observation of the world I live in, the world my daughter has to live in. I wrote most of the lyrics at the same time, which was far more difficult but challenging and rewarding."
The change of pace is apparent right from the opening notes of "Burden of Proof," a mellow, acoustic guitar-driven track that sounds like it could be a lullaby.
"I find the lack of accountability people of faith are willing to have disturbing," Cape explains when asked about the song. "We create all of our problems and it seems we can forgo the guilt. Faith can absolve us of any responsibility for our actions or lack thereof. Whatever tragedies we incur can be written off as God's will. Grand design can be a grand excuse. Many people find comfort in the belief that we are here temporarily and have some place to go in afterlife. They believe there are larger forces than nature. Too many see a reward in following the party line or chosen doctrine in unwavering faith without questioning the repercussions or consideration of their actions. So many believe they can not have happiness or even compassion and practice good deeds without help from their faith."
He goes on to say that he "rarely sees evidence of the modern-day Good Samaritan." The following song, "Reign," taps into that frustration as Cape sings "hallowed be thy name/thy shame." The album's other theme concerns the rapid change in technology. Cape doesn't exactly think things are getting better.
"We are left with less relevant wisdom to pass on," he says. "It makes me sad that in my lifetime we are clearly moving away from a world that honors, respects and learns from our elders and history."
While songs such as "Made of Broken Parts" feature the sneering vocals and noisy guitars you'd associate with most punk rock, the songs have a real urgency to them and reflect the fact the band, which first formed in 1990 in California, still has something to prove. Cape says the band's continued passion for playing is what has kept it going for 25 years.
"There is ebb and flow and enthusiasm comes and goes," he admits. "When we hit those lulls, we wait them out rather than break up — there was almost the beginnings of a limerick in there. "
And does Cape think punk rock is still alive and well?
"Philosophically, always," he says. "But those words have a variety of meaning to me musically."
Lagwagon, Swingin' Utters, This Legend
8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 25, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $20, grogshop.gs.