In the ‘90s Plow United earned a place in the collective heart of punk rock for their furious melodic punk anthems that documented suburban life in a way that set them apart from their Fat Wreck and Epitaph contemporaries. They came, they made their mark, they left.
Fast forward to the year 2011, when Brian McGee, Sean Rule and Joel Tannenbaum caught their devotees by surprise, announcing that they’d be reuniting to play at Riot Fest East in Philadelphia.
Once they picked it up, they found they couldn’t put it back down; the next year was packed with live shows, opening for the likes of The Bouncing Souls and Less than Jake, and tearing the roof off in front of festival crowds in Baltimore and Gainesville, FL. Before they knew it, they were in the studio recording a new record.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with Plow United’s Tannenbaum to discuss that forthcoming full-length, Marching Band, which comes out on April 2 via Jump Start Records.
When did you begin writing the material for your most recent album?
Some of the songs, like “Meggers,” the album’s closing track, were written back in the 1990s during Plow’s first incarnation. Some, like “Human 2000,” were written a few months before we went into the studio. That’s in a way one of the coolest things about making a record together for the first time in over a decade. And of course the question is always complicated by the fact that all three of us write individually and have very different processes.
What was the most difficult song to take from the initial writing stage through recording and mixing? Why was it so troublesome?
I’d say “Falling, Deeply” which started out as something very different that Sean wrote for a very different purpose. It was a real pleasure for me, 3,000 miles away from him, via phone and email, watching it evolve, very slowly and sometimes painfully, both lyrically and musically, into what it became for the recording.
Which of the songs on the record is most different from your original concept for the song?
Oh, see above! But also I guess my favorite song that Brian contributed to the record, “Get Low,” which in the initial stages was kind of subdued and moody, and eventually turned into the ecstatic freak-out that it is on the record, especially with the help of guest vocalist Mimi Gallagher, which I guess brings us to the next question!
Did you have any guest musicians play or sing on the record?
Yes! And by the way, that was easily one of the most fun parts of the whole process. The aforementioned Mimi Gallagher, who plays in a really great punk called from West Chester, PA called NONA, sang what basically amounts to a duet with Brian on “Get Low,” and the dual vocals, especially the call-and-response in the chorus, really ended up bringing something to the surface in the song that might not have been as present otherwise.
And there’s more! After Mimi finished her part, SteveO and Jeff from the Holy Mess came by the studio with Josh Agran from Paint it Black. We spent hours with them working out cool harmonies, like the one Jeff sang on “Human 2000” or the one Josh added to “The Beginning of the End of the World.” Josh kind of ended up being one of the album’s secret weapons, like with the cool extra vocal in the chorus of “Act Like It” that he essentially improvised on the spot. And then they all did some sweet group vocals on a couple of songs, one of which, “Cui Bono?’ was particularly memorable. Watching them work together was really interesting and, I think, a real rejoinder to anyone who thinks that punk and musicianship are mutually exclusive. Of course, they also drank all our beer. Bastards.
And that’s doubly true of the contributions to “Meggers” made by Audrey Crash. Audrey has played in many a West Philly punk band over the years, but she is also a classically trained musician. I am fortunate enough to play with her in another band called Ex Friends, which is how she ended up on this record. Audrey dropped by the last day we were in the studio and added these achingly beautiful baroque piano and violin parts to the penultimate section of Meggers. She worked on the fly with very little guidance and delivered amazing performances on two very demanding instruments. She added some vocals to the final chorus of the song as well and in some ways that’s the coolest part: you can hear all five of our guests in the last chorus of the last song on the record, even though they weren’t all there at the same time.
I suppose if you wanted to get all mystical and shit you could argue that my late grandfather, Harry Tannenbaum, makes a brief appearance on the record. He used to play in the Aqua String Band, which is a Mummer’s club that’s been around for over a century. (If you’re in Philly you know what a Mummer is.) Anyway, he played a beautiful old banjo mandolin that Brian, who is a woodworker and certified guitar tech, carefully restored during downtime in the studio. He then played it at the end of each chorus on “Human 2000.” It sounds silly, but I get chills each time I hear it, as does my dad, who is definitely no fan of punk rock!
Who produced the record? What input did that person have that changed the face of the record?
The record didn’t have a producer per se, but it was engineered by Dave Downham at Gradwell House, and he ended up being something much better than a producer in some ways; he was more like a fourth band member. He picked up very quickly on our individual quirks and the group dynamic. He knew when to push and when to leave it alone, when to intervene and when to lay back, etc. He’s also an incredibly efficient worker and he saved us a lot of time that way. Props as well to Jon Drew, who mixed the record and is responsible for a lot of its subtle ambiances. Jon is one of my favorite producers of all time so it was way exciting to work with him. And Alan from West West Side made it LOUD!
Is there an overarching concept behind your new album that ties the record together?
Kind of! Again that’s always a difficult question to answer because of the multiple writers. But I’ll say this: the overarching theme of the old Plow songs, mostly written when we were between the ages of 17 and 21, was, I guess, wanting to be recognized as an adult, while realizing the adult world wasn’t all it had cracked up to be. Now we’re all in our 30s and I’d say the overarching theme, if there is one, would be not giving in to cynicism, even when the world gives you plenty of reasons to be cynical.
Have you begun playing these songs live and which songs have elicited the strongest reaction from your fans?
I remember in the old days when we played a new song for the first time, watching carefully to see how people reacted. Even though it was against conventional wisdom, we always believed that if a song was good enough, you could have people singing along by the end of the first time they heard it. I remember that happening with “West Chester Nuclear Winter,” watching this guy getting floated by the crowd, by the end screaming the “Entropy, entropy” part even though he’d clearly never heard the song before, and being like “yeah!”
So with that in mind, we started playing new songs by pretty much our first shows after Riot Fest. So far a song called “The War is Over and Our Side Won” seems to be making people happy when we play it live, as does “Human 2000.” We played “Falling, Deeply” for the first time live at Fest 11 and we definitely got what we were hoping for: that collective sharp intake of breath in the quiet part before the end. So that’s always encouraging! I think the hope is that a lot of new people are going to come on board in the next few months and that, for them, the new songs will just be “the songs.” We were constantly introducing new songs back in the day. We would have gotten so bored otherwise. And it’s really no different today, even though we love the old songs. Plow United is like a shark. If it doesn’t keep moving, it will die.
(Plow United have released a 2 song 7″ via Kiss of Death. The songs are streaming via their Bandcamp here:
Catch Plow United at one of these upcoming dates:
3.27: Live Performance on The Chris Gethard Show New York, NY
3.28: Knitting Factory Brooklyn, NY w/ Iron Chic, The Unlovables
3.29: Roxy and Dukes Dunnellen, NJ, w/ The Scandals, Let Me Run, The Headies, Blackjack Jukebox
3.30 Record Release! The Barbary Philadelphia, PA w/ The Holy Mess, NONA, Ma Jolie
5.17: POUZZA Fest Montreal, Canada)