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.

Portland Punks Mr Wrong on their new LP: “Create A Place acknowledges that the spaces we wanna exist in may not be fully formed yet but that we can create them together”

Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Mr Wrong is our kind of right in every way, super fun in a Devo meets the B-52s kind of way. At the start of this year they released album Create A Place, we spoke to the band to get the bigger picture of where they’ve come from, what inspires them and of the place they’re creating for themselves with their powerful – tackling important subjects like politics, healthcare, oppression and rape culture – spirited punk.

What were you like growing up? How did you first come to music?

URSULA (drums, vox): I was a shy kid, very much in my own world, which music was a vital part of. Both my parents had great/really varied taste, and there was always music playing at home- from Balkan Choirs to Here Come the Warm Jets. Music gave me a context/outlet for the extreme emotional turbulence of adolescence. 

MOF (guitar/vox): the term my parents used for me as a kid was, “spacey.” Some of my earliest memories are listening to Gang of Four, Human League, Depeche Mode, The Buzzcocks, DEVO, etc. in my dad’s car and feeling overwhelmed with hope and excitement by the prospect of existing in those worlds someday. I was a sensitive kid that appreciated the emotional strength & honesty of the music my dad introduced me to, it was empowering and validating & I never grew out of loving it.

 LEO (bass/vox): I stared at the world through big eyes, fascinated in what was going on around me, but contemplative to the point of hesitancy. My family would sing together, we’d play dulcimers that we made out of long green boxes, and I would strum along as a lil beb in a high-chair belting with them, and not worrying about a thing. I grew up singing, folk songs and songs my grandparents grew up with, and slowly my dad’s rock n roll fascination with far-away music got infused in there too. My cousin taught me about punk rock, my friends and I would drive around immersed in PNW rap, and I fell asleep to Enya every night. I loved it all. 

Photo courtesy of Mr Wrong.

What inspired you to start making tunes?

URSULA: I was always singing along to things. All of my heroes were musicians. My dad played in bands so it seemed like a somewhat accessible world (though it took me a really long time to be in a band- not until my early 20’s). As a kid I dabbled in piano, and guitar. 

MOF: I tried to write music a lot as a kid using layering in Garage Band but never had formal training or much confidence. After reading Girls to the Front I decided to finally kick that insecurity to the curb and form a band.

LEO: I always had big feelings, they were overwhelming and confusing, and often stuck inside me. Music became my way to process, to let the feelings out so I could look at them and turn it into something I could understand. I started on piano, quickly moved and got completely obsessed with acoustic guitar, where I started writing sad and freaky songs to myself and never really stopped.

How did you come to playing the instrument that you do in Mr. Wrong?

URSULA: Mof and our friend Colette (who now lives in Berlin) told me they were starting a band. At that point, we were just acquaintances, I had seen them around and thought they were super cool. When they asked me if I wanted to play drums, I jumped at the chance and started teaching myself to play. We jammed a few times in that incarnation, and then Colette moved away and Mof and I continued as a two piece. 

MOF: Shortly before staring Mr. Wrong, I found an off-white Squire with a teal pick guard on Craigslist for $50. I loved it (still do) and decided that would be what I tried to learn. I did end up painting the pickguard white with black triangles, however. 

LEO: I’m drawn to the low end. Bass is where rhythm meets melody and I’d always dreamed of basking in that magical crossroad. Getting to play with Mof and Urs is a dream come true.

I feel there’s little hints of Devo and B-52’s in your music; are you fans of either?

URSULA: We are giant fans of both- good instincts.

MOF: One of the two covers we’ve learned is 52 Girls by the B-52s and Ursula and I do a radio show with two other friends called Time out Four Fun, named after Devo’s song, “Time Out For Fun”. You could say we’re big fans of both bands! 

LEO: (Heart-eyes emoji). 

In January you released your LP Create A Place; where did the title come from?

URSULA: It’s a line from the song ‘Isolation Du Plenty’. We had a really hard time coming up with a name. Our first ideas were more apocalyptic in vibe, but we ended up feeling that, although the album deals with a lot of chaos and unrest, our ultimate outlook is still hopeful. Create A Place acknowledges that the spaces we wanna exist in may not be fully formed yet but that we can create them together. And it’s probably gonna be messy, but we have to try. 

MOF: The title comes from the song ‘Isolation du Plenty’” which was written in the winter of 2016/2017. Inspired, in part by, Tomata Du Plenty’s world, via The Screamers and his visual art. The lyrics are about creating a place of stability in your mind, even if it’s just a vision of a someday physical space that you hope to occupy, and drawing inspiration through artists you’ll never meet. I feel that the songs on Create A Place are all, in one way or another, critical of institutions that prevent stability for large portions of the population, the hopeful message we aspire to leave with listeners is that we can change that. 

 LEO: It’s about noticing what we need in the world around us and feeling inspired to create it for ourselves (and anyone who feels connected to it). It can seem scary to take those first steps when no one around you is doing something, but that makes it all the more important to trust your gut and do it.

How long were you working on the album for? Were there any challenges?

URSULA: About two years, I think? We were in a songwriting rut for a minute there- I think we were feeling the pressures-or perceived pressures- that can come with making a sophmore album.

MOF: A famous quote by Mark Twain that I always fall back on is, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so here’s a long one instead.” Create A Place is Mr. Wrong’s short letter, we had a couple songs written when our first album came out in 2017 and let the next 7 evolve over the following two years.  We tried a lot of new things on this album and also went through a lot of changes as individuals over those two years, so there were certainly challenges. 

 LEO: Life is full of unexpected challenges. This album was us learning how to tenaciously push through the chaos of reality together, and learn how to be there for each other and ourselves in uncertain and scary times.

Photo by KC Weimann; courtesy of Mr Wrong.

How did you go about writing songs for this record? Was it collaborative?

URSULA: As usual, almost all of it was through jamming out ideas. Super collaborative. 

MOF: We write everything collaboratively, aside from some lyrics.

LEO: We talk about everything, and hold space for everyone’s ideas. The music is an extension of our relationship.

What’s your personal favourite track on the LP? What’s it about?

URSULA: I really love them all, but I’m especially proud of how ‘White Male Teacher’ turned out. That songs about all sorts of things- mostly power dynamics and oppression. The title is a reference to a high school teacher I had who wrote a public letter announcing that rape culture does not exist and passed it out to his freshman class. 

MOF: ‘Holding for Healthcare’ means a lot to me, It comes from a massive frustration with the inaccessibility & inefficiency of privatized healthcare; the discrepancy of care between poor and wealthy Americans. I remember thinking about how DEVO might broach the subject, with a hint of humour and absurdity, it feels cathartic to play every time. 

LEO: ‘Nuclear Generation’ will always hold a dear place in my heart. For me it’s about not giving up, even when there are many daunting forces out of our control, decisions being made in locked rooms by a lot of old white men, that started long before we were born and will continue to really fuck things up. But through acknowledging and learning about the past and the effects on the current systems can rally us together to change our future, to “reinvent it, power down” -bringing the power to the people, turning off our phones and screens and realizing how much beautiful world we still have to fight for.

What’s a song you wished you wrote?

MOF: ‘It’s Obvious’ by the Au Pairs

URSULA: ‘Nervous Tonight’ by Portland’s own, Lotek.

L: ‘Hounds of Love’ by Kate Bush 

All of you sing; when did you each discover your voice? Were you ever self-conscious or nervous when you started out singing? 

URSULA: Singing in public used to scare the shit out of me. The sense of support and empowerment that I get from my bandmates has gone a long ways towards evaporating that fear. I definitely found my voice in this band. 

MOF: I feel I truly discovered my voice when listening to bands like Bratmobile, The Petticoats, Delta 5. My only experience with singing before was as an alto in High School Choir, while I loved the harmonies and comradery of being in a choir, it didn’t feel expressive to me. Hearing a vocal style sang by women that was individualistic, verging on talking or yelling-but not without melodic elements- was an “aha” moment for me. Exploring that with Ursula at the start of MW (we were a 2 piece at first) is when I feel I truly discovered my voice, she was super supportive and encouraging, which really helped me find my way. That supportive dynamic has continued with the addition of Leo, I feel very fortunate to have a safe place be vocally expressive.

LEO: When I got exhausted by the pressure to sound pretty. I like singing at the top of my lungs, or making freaky sounds and seeing where my voice can take me, but it took me SO long to be confident enough to let my voice do it’s thing in the presence of any other living humans. It is still a struggle, and some days it feels way harder than others. But I try to remember how good it feels, and focus on the gratitude that there is a place in my life where I can let go.

Who did the art for Create A Place? What was the thought behind it?

URSULA: Mof. 

MOF: I was thinking about the future & creating that future amidst isolation, through solidarity with like-minded people, when I drew the cover for Create A Place.

Why is it important to keep creating art in these crazy/uncertain times?

URSULA: Art is a way of processing/ trying to make sense of the human condition (sometimes it cannot be made sense of, and you just need to scream about it). It’s important to know that someone else out there is feeling something you feel, and they turned that into a piece of art that can be experienced and enjoyed. That’s pretty fucking magic. 

MOF: There are nuggets of wisdom and catharsis in art from the past, the recent past especially. It’s important for artists to continue creating- not just as an outlet for them personally, which is important- but as a life raft for future generations as well. We need to keep a document of what’s happening so that our collective history isn’t solely written by the ruling class.

LEO: I often don’t even know what I’m feeling until I can express it. Being able to make some kind of art, and look at it from the outside is a window into myself. Art is something to hold on to, to be able to fully fall into when my mind is running away from me or I’m lost inside myself. Focusing and immersing myself something can allow me the space to come back to myself when some time has passed and I can think differently. It is an anchor to keep me here, to recover into, to be able to take a breath, get up and do what I need to do.

Why is community important to you? Where do you feel yours is?

URSULA: Community is important because no one has all the answers. Crowd sourcing is the way of the past, and I think we’re seeing it return in a big way right now. The people I’m lucky enough to call friends make me feel seen, supported, and loved. Art for art’s sake is great- but I think having a community to share it with really takes it to a different level that’s so special.

MOF: Art doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and as Ursula said, having community to share with is what gives art meaning. I guess I could say I feel community most when I feel understood and valued on an emotional level. As that’s what art is to me- an emotional exchange of ideas- I feel I have found a large part of my community through this band and the people we have connected with.   

LEO: Feeling in community can be difficult in such an individualistic society. I have started to think of community as family, and it’s clear to me: The nuclear family is not enough. We need to form our own families, with all different kinds of people, with elders and kids and babies and teenagers and neighbours and mentors and friends and plants and people we just met and from places we’ve never been. Community is giving and taking care in so many ways, reinventing old ones and imagining new ones. It is accepting and letting others see the beautiful and ugly mosaic of who we are, so we can confidently be our vivid and dynamic selves together. I always say it takes a village to be a band, because it does. It takes so many people believing and doing to make anything happen. And wow, do we all need to believe in each other and a future right now.

Please check out: MR WRONG. Create A Place out on Water Wing Records. Mr Wrong on Facebook. Mr Wrong on Instagram.