Portland Punks Era Bleak: “Our songs are generally inspired by the sense of urgency we feel… anxiety, frustration and confusion… the fucked up state of the world”

Original Photos taken in isolation by Candy, Justin, Fawn & Samantha. Handmade collage by B.

Era Bleak play wild, raucous punk rock with angular guitars, driving rhythm and raw gut-level vocals, they remind us of our favourite ‘80s hardcore punk bands but are firmly planted in the now making music reflective of our uncertain times. Their music is both bleak yet optimistic. Gimmie interviewed them to find out more.

How did you first discover punk rock?

ZACH: It was 1991 and I was a junior high nerd into some serious nerd shit. My favourite bands were Oingo Boingo, They Might Be Giants, The Dead Milkmen and The Ramones. I had no idea that any of those bands were punk (I’m still on the fence about Oingo Boingo). A couple years later, my older cousin played me the brand-new debut Rancid album, and that was that.

CANDY: I was lucky to have had an older brother and sister that were each teenage rockers in the 70’s and a mom that was always listening to “oldies” radio. SNL and American Bandstand were favourite TV show’s in our house, each of which had numerous punk bands as guests.  I think those things helped steer me in the right direction. My sister was into the Rocky Horror Picture Show movement when it first started and she would bring her friends over dressed up for a show. They looked dangerous and weird and tough and it was something I found myself drawn to as a kid. So naturally when I would see and hear weirdos on TV. I paid attention. My sister encouraged my interest over the years and it really came to a head when she gifted me records for my 11th or 12th birthday. DEVO-Freedom of Choice, Adam and the Ants-Kings of the Wild Frontier and Cheap Trick-One on One (not their greatest I now). Over the next 5 years my interest slowly progressed to bat cave, skate rock and anything I heard on the local college radio station in Boise Idaho. The show was called Mutant Pop KBSU/BSU Radio. It pretty much changed my life. I would record the show onto my boombox and the rest is history!

CHRIS: I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. No scene. A cultural shithole. No older siblings to turn me on to cool stuff. No internet back then. I was way into metal but would see all these rad weird shirts in Thrasher magazine and would try to find those bands tapes at the mall, after I heard the Ramones and Black Flag it was over, me and my friends were so isolated, whatever we could get our hands on was a big deal. Devo, Butthole Surfers, the Urinals, Misfits (duh)….all the SST stuff

Photo: Darren Plank.

What are the things that you really enjoy or don’t enjoy about the punk community?

ZACH: The answer to both is “punks”.

JUSTIN: Ha! Exactly. I like the creative comradery and DIY dedication in the punk “community” but not some of the single minded attitudes of some punks, particularly to other kinds of music styles.

CANDY: I don’t enjoy the overabundance of blinding phone screens at shows. It drives me bonkers. I like that new ideas and new sounds still occasionally come out of some of the scenes here, some more than others. People support each other and look out for each other it seems.

CHRIS: Damn, couldn’t agree with Zach more.

Who or what motivated you to make music yourself?

ZACH: It’s the logical chain of events when you’re a punk!* One minute, you’re a wide-eyed 15 year old at a show, the next, you’re 38 and sleeping on a filthy mattress in an unheated squat in Leipzig surrounded by a surly Polish post-punk band. *Post script, I want to recognize my male privilege (and teenage male ego) on this response. The scene I grew up in was not as sexist as others I have come across (lookin’ at you, Germany) but was typically under-represented and under-supportive. 

JUSTIN: I got into playing music before I knew punk was a thing, due to my parents being in a rock cover band in the ‘80s. I started playing drums at an early age, and was exposed to punk through being around their band, who were mainly hippies, but played songs by new wave bands like Devo, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, The Pretenders. I found a cassette of the Repo Man soundtrack at one of their band rehearsals, and that kind of blew my mind into the right direction, punk-wise. I started playing in weirdo loser bands with my other weirdo loser friends right away in high school and never looked back.

CANDY: My motivation was having a basement, affordable equipment and a decent paying job that allowed me to buy what I was interested in trying. Bass, drums and years later “singing”. Friends that wanted to make noise for the first time and musician friends willing to teach me the ropes also helped.

CHRIS: Yeesh, where I grew up it was the only way to escape and keep some level of sanity, the need to connect with something bigger

What was your first introduction to D.I.Y.?

ZACH: Fortunately, my home town of Denver has one of the world’s greatest record stores, Wax Trax. I started going there religiously when I was 16, and was able to make the jump from shitty mainstream pop-punk to shitty local DIY pop-punk.

JUSTIN: I grew up in a small town near Seattle, Washington, and in the early 90’s the whole grunge thing was really everywhere. Me and my friends were already bummed on how mainstream alternative rock was really taking over and were looking for something of our own. Lollapalooza brought to you by Mt Dew and all that. The hardcore punk house show scene was where really the escape from all the bullshit for me. Going to gigs, networking, tape trading, and zine sharing introduced me to a whole way of operating autonomously from the mainstream, and how anyone can create their  own scene anywhere, even in a tiny town. This was pre internet, so you had to actually talk to people in person…but it was a good thing.

CANDY: I was dating the drummer of a band that would make all of their own merch. Stickers at Kinko’s, t-shirts in the garage, buttons at home. I helped in the t-shirt screen printing process a few times and it was fun and definitely made me realize that nothing is out of reach. Most things can be done by your own hand. In that same time period, the guitarist of the band Mikey (r.i.p) had crafted his own guitar with the neck off of an old guitar of his and a skate deck as the body. The thing was bad ass and smart as ever on his part.

Photo: Jeff Shwilk.

Era Bleak are from Portland, Oregon, we’ve been hearing/seeing the protests on the news over here in Australia; can you tell us a little about your experience of what’s happening where you are?

ZACH: It is pretty amazing. Tens of thousands of people have shown up to protest America’s racist policing practices. Not surprisingly, the police are not taking the criticism well, and ironically, seem intent to prove our point through egregious violence. It is worth noting that most of the violent police response has centred around a very small area near the “Justice Center” (aka court house) in a part of downtown that was already essentially shut down by the coronavirus. The media makes things look wild, but 99.9% of Portland still just looks like Portlandia. 

Members of Era Bleak are from bands Dark/Light and Piss Test; how did Era Bleak get together?

JUSTIN: We were all friends and fans of each other’s bands before we started. Candy and I had played in like five punk bands together, and thought of doing a side project to Dark/Light. We asked Chris and Zach to play, figured they’d both be too busy, but turned out you should never underestimate the hunger of punks to wanna punk out. Eventually the side project became more full time.

What inspired you to write your self-titled album? What influences your songs the most?

JUSTIN: I think most of our songs are generally inspired by the sense of urgency we feel all the time every day. That anxiety, frustration and confusion we feel from being on our phones all the time, and the fucked up state of the world. As far as the music goes, 90% of it is written together as a band, usually through spontaneous jamming. Zach likes to joke that we’re really a “jam band”…if only we smoked more weed.

Last month EB donated 100% of proceeds of your self-titled album sales to Black Resilience Fund and BLM Mutual Aid Resources; can you tell us a little bit about these funds/resources? Why was it important to you to support them?

ZACH: Black Resilience Fund is great because they funnel that money directly into the community. We also donated to the PDX Bail Fund to help get protesters out of jail.

JUSTIN: We felt like it’s very important for the BLM movement to continue to gain ground in the face of white supremacy and the rise of fascism in America. Especially living in a region (Oregon) with a shitty history of racism. Since we were not touring or playing live gigs, we were going to have to sell records online anyway, so why not generate some donations for a good cause? It was a no brainer for us.

On album opener Era Bleak the lyrics are: ‘Things get shittier every week / No hope for the future in this era bleak’; where are the places you do find hope when things seem rough?

JUSTIN: Well, I just deleted all my social media accounts, so that makes me feel a little better.

CANDY: I find hope in my backyard. It’s my safe place and I’m obsessive about observing the natural world. I guess I find hope in nature. I recently observed a small swarm of ants work together to move a dead bee about a foot away. They all had their individual jobs to do to make it work. It took an hour or more but it was fascinating to observe.

CHRIS: When I walk my dog with my headphones on drinking coffee.

What’s your favourite lyric on your LP?

ZACH: “Fire on the horizon” (though possibly because Oregon is literally on fire as I write this).

CANDY: My fave is from MRI: “they wanna see into my head, see what’s going on in there”. I think it’s witty, it flows and it’s the truth.

We really love the song “Struggle”; how did that song come together?

JUSTIN: That song makes my hand cramp up.

CANDY: Lyric wise the song is about my sister Sonia whom I mentioned earlier. If I remember correctly I had already written the lyrics before the music came together. Once the dudes started jamming on it I realized they would be a good fit and the feeling was there in the sound. It worked.

What was your favourite part of the recording process? Do you have a favourite moment on the album?

ZACH: The songs were very finalized before we got to the studio, so we were able to record the record in two days. We don’t fuck around! If I had to pick a favourite studio moment, it may be Justin doubling his vocals at the end of Mind Control Tower. It sounds cool and was hilarious to witness.

JUSTIN: What was hilarious was Zach’s keyboard part that we never used. Or when Chris wasn’t ready to start Tinderbox and you could actually hear during playback the sound of him picking up his sticks off the snare right as the song started without missing a beat!

CHRIS: We should’ve left that in! I worked nine hours that day and went straight to the studio and started playing, it was great.

What bands/albums/songs have you been listening to lately that you can’t get enough of?

ZACH: All Hits (new album on Iron Lung Records) and Francoise Hardy.

JUSTIN: Music is life.  Lately my favourite shit been Essential Logic, Norma Tanega, Delta 5, Subway Sect, Funkadelic, Can, (Hardcore) Devo, and new stuff like All Hits, Gimmick, Ben Von Wildenhaus III, Lavender Flu, Slaughterhouse, Sweeping Promises, Mr Wrong. Plus Greg Sage Straight Ahead and Wipers Land of the Lost is always in the stack this year.

CANDY: Tuxedomoon, Prince, Roky Erickson, Dead Moon, Nina Simone, DEVO (always).

CHRIS: Dead Moon , it’s fall, so lots of Dead Moon. I’ve also been rocking a lot of Zounds and Lilliput lately….and of course Husker Du.

What do you do outside of music?

ZACH: I am the Operations Director of a non-profit that provides Behavioural Health services and recovery housing, primarily for people involved in our (broken) criminal justice system.

JUSTIN: I lost my job as a restaurant manager due to the pandemic, and now I’m a full time Dungeon Master, basketball enthusiast and total slob.

CANDY: I grow stuff indoors and outside and do a lot of plant propagation. I observe birds and insects. I also talk to my cat Bessie all day, read and do crosswords. I’ve recently been getting into dot art designs. I got laid off from my job because of the pandemic so I have some time on my hands.

CHRIS: Warhammer 40k!

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

JUSTIN: Australia rules and we wanna come tour there.

CANDY: I second what Justin said. Thanks for interviewing us!

Please check out ERA BLEAK; EB on Facebook; EB on Instagram. Era Bleak album out on Dirt Cult Records.

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