Quicksand’s Walter Schreifels: “What we’ve been dealing with, even for the best of us, has been tough.”

Original photo by Annette Rodriguez. Handmade mixed-media by B.

There’s a heaviness, groove and beauty that simultaneously exists on NYC band Quicksand’s records. Distant Populations is the fourth studio album from the legendary post-hardcore outfit, who are sounding as passionate, and better, than ever. It’s narrative weaves through the complexities of simply existing and coping in the weird times we’re all sharing, and have been for the past couple of years. The album title comes from lyrics of song ‘Inversion’ which were inspired by a misheard lyric of anarcho-punk band, Nausea. Gimmie chatted with the always thoughtful guitarist-vocalist, Walter Schreifels, who has gifted the world so many shining moments through songs in iconic bands Gorilla Biscuits, Youth of Today, CIV, Rival Schools, and more.

WALTER SCHREIFELS: I’m very happy to have the album out. It’s exciting! I’m psyched. I’m hoping that maybe next year we’ll get to travel again; we had so much fun in Australia.

That would be so great. I had so much fun at your last shows here. Congratulations on the new album, it’s tremendous.

WS: Thank you so much. I’m glad you like it; I really appreciate that. It feels really cool that we did all of this stuff to make this record and people are appreciating it, especially you, thank you.

What have you been up to today?

WS: I woke up and I went for a run. I came home, we had a house guest, she’s been helping us with some interior decorating, so we had some discussions about that. Then I had to go pick up an amp over in Brooklyn. I got a parking ticket, but I got my amp! Outside of that, I answered some emails, and went for a nice walk with my wife, we bought groceries. Pretty basic.

A part from the parking ticket, it seems like a pretty perfect day, doing a little of all the things you enjoy.

WS: That is exactly right.

What kinds of things were you discussing with the interior decorator? What kind of vibe does your home have?

WS: We moved apartments in May, so we’re just figuring this one out. Let me just adjust this [moves computer] you can see this big wall with no artwork on it, we’re figuring out what kind of art we want there. We were thinking a big piece, so we were talking about some kind of giant photograph or maybe a painting. We kept our old apartment and we’re subletting it, there’s a painting there that is just big enough, but the frame is a little warped. We’re going to take the canvas off the frame and just hang it flat, that’s our solution. It’s an abstract painting that a friend of mine did, it’s kind of a splatter painting, but it’s got some vibe to it and the colours are nice, so we’re going to try it out. I guess interior decorating is like that, you put something there and see if it sticks, if it does, cool; if not, it’s a work in progress.

Yeah, I think a home is always like that. It’s always in progress and it always evolves and changes, as you do. Our home’s walls are filled with art our friends have made, we’ve made or we have pieces from our favourite artists, and a lot of framed concert posters. I love having walls filled with things that make me happy, and when you walk past certain pieces, you’ll think of that person that made that for you or maybe when you got it or it might evoke a time in your life.

WS: I think that’s the best. Especially if you have some friend’s artwork and it radiates that, it’s really, really nice.

I know that for you as an artist, growth is always really important to you, and that for this album Distant Populations,it’s something you really wanted to focus on. How do you feel you’ve grown?

WS: From the experience of doing Interiors and touring – you and I first met when we were in Australia with Thursday – all of those experiences, going from not having recorded a record to making this record-comeback-thing, to touring the world and really doing it. Then we became a three-piece. I really grew as a player. The three of us carrying on also brought us a lot closer, and created a lot of movement—we really got each other’s back. We’ve always been good friends, but never more so than now.

That’s really nice.

WS: Making this album we went at it with a fair bit more confidence, because we had gone through all of that together. We built and process, so that if we were really stuck on something, which inevitably happens, we were confident that we would get through it without worrying about it too much. Which is a good place to be in a relationship, problems arise and challenges are there. A lot of the growth happened there, in the guts of it.

Stylistically we took more chances, for what that’s worth, we were less concerned with: are we living up to something? Are we being faithful to a legacy? We had a bit more of a free hand there, and I think we took advantage of it.

We obviously wanted to come out with something new that was faithful to our old records, but also reflective of who we are in the now. And, now we’re freer from that, which is nice. I’m grateful for all of it, to be honest. It’s cool.

When you started making Distant Populations what story did you want to tell?

WS: We wanted to be a little more succinct and punchier. With Interiors it was more expansive, moodier and soundscape-y. That was great for us and we were really successful with that, but having done that, we wanted things to be a little tighter; that was part of our goal. We were psyched if a song was under two minutes. If it was creeping over three, we were really wondering; why?

When I listen to the record, I don’t want to review my own album, but as much as I can be objective about it, I think it holds you in. I’ve heard the songs plenty of times. I’ll be like, how does that song sound? I’ll listen to it and the next song will start and I’ll be like, oh shit, I wanna hear this song now. It’s gets to the point without rushing. It was always fun, we didn’t have to labour it, in that regard.

Album art by Tetsunori Tawaraya.

For me that’s when some of the best art happens, when it’s not tortured and laboured over too much. There’s magic in spontaneity and immediacy. I think you can work on something for too long, to the point where the heart and the spirit that made it shine, is gone.

WS: For sure! We figured out our process and if we hit those stumbling blocks where it’s not fun, we would just shake it off and do something else; we let it simmer. You can’t force it. We were pretty good about that. In the end we were listening back and making our comments, and we were all cooperative about it. It was really nice. We were laughing—there’s fun in it.

The album art work by Japanese artist Tetsunori Tawaraya is especially fun! I noticed that between the artwork as well as some of the songs like ‘Katakana’ (which is a Japanese syllabary) and ‘Rodan’ (a winged-monster from 1950s Japanese monster movies), that there’s a bit of a Japanese connection.

WS: There’s a love of Japan shared throughout the band. Initially when we were talking about the artwork, Sergio [Vega] sent this Japanese artist from the early 70’s through and it was this monster motif; we couldn’t really contact the artist. I knew Tetsunori Tawaraya’s artwork and said, this is an artist that is kind of in the same vibe, but he’s an illustrator and working now, he’s alive and my friend is friends with him. We wanted it to be fun.

Interiors’ art work, I love it, I think it’s so cool, but it’s got this spaciousness and trippiness to it. Tetsunori’s work has this monster funness about it and it’s a good image to project this music on to for the music to live in. We wanted to create a Star Wars-esque saga for our music to live in, where there’s this protagonist, this dude with a staff, and then there’s monsters and stuff like that. And, the lyrical themes of the songs could exist in a fantastical world. So, you can escape the sort of bullshit; typically, the way things play out in our contemporary discussions of how the world is going; how we’re feeling; how we’re coping…to have it exist in that world instead. To keep it fun like that.

As far as the Japanese thing, ‘Rodan’ was just a working title. I tried to find out, what am I writing about in regards to Rodan? To me it ended up being about being humble, being small, and how you contest with outside forces that are beyond your control, like a force of nature, like Rodan this giant thing that could kill you, or you could be swept up in its wind. Being small. Being humble. Not trying to attack that.

With ‘Katakana’ I think it is so interesting how the Japanese have these different character alphabets for their language. Japanese culture is so interesting, that for western music, especially from my generation, it’s now spread quite a bit across Asia, where there’s this cross-culturalisation where people in Japan appreciate western music, and it’s becoming more so that western people appreciate music from Asia. For me, Japan is the place that I am most familiar with. That’s pretty much where it came from, it wasn’t like, ‘let’s just do Japan!’ I was kind of just in our vibe, we always love going there, it’s awesome.

I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. I love so much about Japanese culture; I have since I was a kid. My old punk zine was reviewed by Maximum Rock N Roll once and the reviewer said, “You’d think this girl was Japanese” because I used to have a lot of Japanese-inspired art in the zine.

WS: Yeah, that artwork is cool. Japanese somehow just do everything right. Aesthetically they’re so on point.

Before you mentioned that sometimes there’s things outside of yourself that you don’t have control over, I was thinking about that a lot with the global pandemic, lockdowns and life changing. Watching the news most days, I was realising that a lot of it is designed to make you fearful and keep you coming back, keep you looking at it, there’s a whole cycle that can keep you feeling down. It was getting me down, as it was a lot of people, and I decided to take a step back and look at what it was in my life that I can control. I’ve found that helpful. What are some things that have helped you in these weird times?

WS: That’s what a lot of the record is about—how I’m coping. This is before Covid, because honestly the lyrics were written before all of this stuff. It’s beautiful that you and I can talk over Zoom, and it’s so cool to see you, but our communication is over soon… we’re losing some of our humanity. Our humanity is evolving at a very fast pace, and that’s scary. People are looking for simple answers, but there’s not really simple answers to all of that. I feel that through music, art, your family, friends, nature, you can find that humility. Through exercise, moving your body, yoga, breathing, meditating, you can find that grounding and you can cope with all that shit that’s coming at you. The fear, it’s really terrible that the cyclical nature of it is that people are addicted to it, and not through their own fault, it doesn’t make anybody bad; people are making money off of addicting you, it’s like cigarettes.

It’s important for me personally, to notice that I am like that too. What does it do for my soul? What do I then carry out into the world? What fears am I projecting because I’m eating it up? I’m like most people [laughs]. I’m pretty much exactly like, most people. I’m dealing with this stuff; how can I get a handle on it? A lot of the stuff in the lyrics is touching on that, sometimes specifically and sometimes in a really broad way.

I told you that I went for a run this morning. When I go for a run, I’m up early in the morning. I live right near Chinatown. I see all the woman fan dancing in the morning and everyone doing Tai Chi. I go run by the river, I see all the other runners running around and all of the boats are going by on the East River – the East River has been there forever. Connecting to those things in the morning puts me in a positive state of mind. It’s easier for me to weather, not just the news, but the stuff that happens, and to be stronger for it, because it just will continue to come; we have to evolve with it and make it through. What we’ve been dealing with, even for the best of us, has been tough.

Like we’ve been talking about, all of the things that we can do to build a strong foundation within ourselves, really does help to cope and in dealing with things.

WS: For sure. You have to take care of yourself to be effective. You have to rest. You have to be good to yourself. You see it, people are just aggravated at each other, aggravated in their own world and it’s coming out… it just seems like anything comes across the plate, people are looking to dissect it in some way that someone else is bad or someone else is ruining it or someone else is against you or someone has to be defeated. Everything seems to be sliced up in those ways and that makes people aggressive. Everyone’s eating that up, whether they want to or not. Some people are probably very disengaged or maybe more elevated in their consciousness and are able to process it more easily. I think it’s something that everybody is dealing with. I am. I’m part of it.

You mentioned meditation; is that something you do?

WS: I don’t meditate, but my wife does. I feel like I should be meditating. I do yoga, which I feel is a breathing meditation. Running is a meditation for me. Meditation is where you’re taking your mind and directing it and working on that muscle. I haven’t gotten into it, but I feel like it’s sitting there for me, like jazz [laughs], I have to dig in a little deeper than I have been.

Was there anything on the record that was challenging?

WS: It’s always challenging in the sense that you want to do your best work. It’s a collective, so you always have to work within that collective. You have to be kind and humble to other people, and you have to get your ideas across. You have to dig deep from yourself, but you also have to know when not to try that hard. These are all challenges. Once you’re going to make a new Quicksand record the first thing is—this thing better be fucking good! It’s not going to be a cakewalk.

As I was saying before, I feel really good about my bandmates and how we handle those challenges, so I have a lot less anxiousness. When a struggle does come, it becomes more of an adventure of, how do we get through it?

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

WS: I sure hope with all the [Covid] variants crossing the world, I hope we figure this out and get a chance to come back to Australia, because we’d love to see you, and get out there and play again, I’m looking forward to that.

That’s the dream. I hope it happens sooner rather than later. Did you miss playing live?

WS: The first year, not that much, to be honest. I didn’t miss going to the airport. I really appreciated just being in one place, because I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager, so every single year of my life has been travel every year, all the time. It was ok to take a break. I’m not going crazy or anything, but I do feel when I go to these different countries and I see people that I’ve met and have friendships with, and cities that I love to see, I do feel that they are part of my home and who I am too. My friendships with these people and my relationships with these cities are a part of me, so I am missing going to Australia, going to Japan, I’m missing my friends in Europe and across the United States. Overall, it’s been ok and, in many ways, awesome to take a rest. I’m ready to hit it again!

Is there anything you do that gives you the same feeling you get when you play live?

WS: Going for a run can be like that, especially trail running, because every time that you put your foot down, you get a different height or texture, you might have to duck under a branch, so your brain is having to fire quickly. At the same time, you get into a trance. When I’m playing, you’re very present. All these different little things are happening and your brain is just doing them and telling your where to go, in the same way your foot knows where to step during a run. Of course, when I stop running, there’s not a bunch of people clapping for me [laughs]. And, I’m not going to talk to that many people after the run about what a cool run it was! I miss the exchange of seeing people, not so much the applause (although I do like applause)—that communication.

For all things Quicksand please check out: quicksandnyc.com. Distant Populations is out now on Epitaph Records.

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