Interview with Captain We’re Sinking guitarist/vocalist Bobby Barnett | By Renaldo Matadeen
In 2013, Captain, We’re Sinking’s sophomore record, The Future Is Cancelled, was a restless perspective from four young adults in their early to mid 20s who were unsettled and wanted more from a world that wasn’t ready to provide it—well, not just yet, anyway. As vocalist and guitarist Bob Barnett indicates, patience is a virtue. Now, the band are a bit older and wiser and recognize that it’s all about that search for answers—even if these answers aren’t right there in front you.
Captain, We’re Sinking detail this journey of self-discovery and introspection intimately. This new outlook on life finds the Scranton quartet back with The King of No Man—released June 23 via Run For Cover Records—an album that’s very much tempered from their previous material.
It’s been four years since The Future Is Cancelled. Why the long wait for The King of No Man?
Well, after the last record came out in 2013, I was going to school at the time. So, after it came out, I focused on school, as I wanted to finish up and get done with it. The band is something I love to do, but I wanted something to balance it within my life. I’m a history teacher right now, so it’s that nice kind of balance. I was living away from the rest of the guys in Scranton, and they were in Philadelphia. We weren’t really around each other too much to keep it going, but we’d do things off and on. It just slowed down a bit, so we had to take our time.
Sounds like you always had this slow approach planned, so how did the band deal with this distance and eventually getting back on the horse?
After I did an acoustic tour in the U.K. in 2016, I came back with some fresh ideas and a new drive to do it again. So, I called them all up, and we started practicing once a month. I would drive down to Philadelphia to meet up with them or they would drive to Scranton to meet me, and once a month, we’d just sit and kind of work on a song together.
It was a bit chaotic, because you have the whole drive involved, but I recently got a job in Philadelphia last August, so for the first time in eight or nine years, we’re all living in the same city together. So, we’d start having weekly band practice, and that quickly escalated to, well, now we could really start writing some songs. The majority of them were written in the fall of 2016, we recorded it in the winter of 2016, and now it’s coming out in the summer of 2017! Once we got the wheels going, it was a pretty quick process.
The team transitioned from this separation and back into a collaborative process pretty quickly. How was this different from when you wrote and recorded The Future Is Cancelled?
My personal experience, being one of the two songwriters, is that it was much more enjoyable—a lot less stress and pressure. With The Future Is Cancelled, I was four years younger and kind of had the mindset of: ‘‘Well, if this fails, I don’t know what I’m gonna be doing with my life,” and anxiety and depression crept up. It was pretty hectic writing back then, but this time, I was already out of college. I got a job teaching down in Philly, and it was just much more enjoyable to have one day a week to practice and write a song together. If we spent three hours working on a verse, that’s OK, because we’ll just meet up again next week.
So, it was much more collaborative. We added our inputs into each and every thing instead of [vocalist and guitarist] Leo [Vergnetti] and I coming in with a song fully done and saying, “Well, I’m only gonna be in this weekend for the next two months, so we have to get this whole new song done.” That was kinda stressful, so this was much more relaxed.
Would you say the last record was a younger, more restless perspective on life as opposed to this one?
Yeah, for sure.
On that note, this new record—it’s not as aggressive. It’s more melodic, more mature. Why did you take this route?
I feel like Leo and I, when we come together with our song idea—our drummer Bill [Orender] is easily the most talented person in our band, and it’s something like, “What can we do to confuse him?” And then, we try to come up with different time signatures or different ways to do it, and he constantly… is just fine with it. So, this time, going through it, we knew we were gonna practice more and we’re gonna play with each other more, so we’ll have more time to get the crux of a song down, but then dissect it in different ways.
And a lot of that process happened in recording with our friend, Matt Schimelfenig, who we grew up with. We’ve known his band, Three Man Cannon, for years, as they played our first show with us. It might have been one of their first shows too, so yeah, we’ve known him since we were 16 years old. He works now in a Philly studio, so we were able to record with him, and he was able to understand each of our personalities to a point of, like, “Well, I see what you’re trying to do here, but why don’t you try to do it like this?’ It’s not just screaming at the top of our lungs and sounding frantic all the time, and it was a lot of his input as to, “Why don’t you just keep it subdued? I think that’s what the song is calling for.” He was able to get that out of us, which was really cool.
So, what’s the concept behind The King of No Man?
It’s named after a song I wrote, and the idea of the song is that there’s a group of scientists living on a space colony on a distant planet, and they’ve been there for years, and these two people start losing it. They realize that, “Well, if there’s a new planet here, and we’re the first civilization, one of us must be the God and Supreme Ruler.” So, they get the idea in their heads that they gotta start killing people to see if they resurrect, and they start murdering people.
In first verse of the song, they’re killing people, but nothing’s happening, so the narrator’s partner-in-crime kills themself and nothing happens. Now, it’s just the narrator by himself, on this planet alone, and he’s now “The King of No Man.” I came up with the story and wrote the song about it, and that was a song we had really early on when we were writing the album. Leo really wanted the name of this song as the album title, because he was reading a book that tackled a similar idea.
Is this a concept album? Do all the other songs tie in?
Oh, no. The songs are pretty separate. This one was kind of a standalone thing. Each song has its own story.
“Trying Year” is very different. It’s reminiscent of Tiny Moving Parts: bubbly, fizzier, happier, and more energetic. Can you share some insight into that track?
I wrote that song originally on the acoustic guitar, and I was trying to learn a new style to play where I’d use my thumb as the bass and rhythm. I’d slap down on the body of the acoustic guitar, and then, play leads with my ring and pinky finger on higher strings. So, I had a really slowed down version of that song [from] trying to play that style, and the melody just came from the chord progression of the song.
It’s from when I was student teaching in college, which was stressful, as it was my last semester. I was in someone else’s classroom trying to teach 30 kids, and it’s your first time doing it. Also, a lot of things were happening in my personal life with my family that was really difficult, so I’d walk around the campus and just kinda hum that chorus to myself and say that line over and over again: “It’s been a really trying year, a really long year.” And I’d kinda laugh to myself.
You just get so much thrown at you in life, where you look at yourself and say, “OK, really, what’s next?” You don’t go into a hole and crumble or collapse. You almost just laugh at it, because you realize that you’re still standing, you’re still living. “I’m dealing with this, this, and this, and I’m still here living every single day. So, what else do you have for me?” It’s definitely a positive song, but with some tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic lyrics—it’s the end of days! You know, really, the world wasn’t ending, everything was gonna work out and be OK. It just felt like it at the time.
So, what would you say is the theme of this album? You use the word “wound” quite a lot on some songs. Is that related to your side project, Little Wounds?
What we really wanted to try to do this time was reflect on The Future Is Cancelled. It was a very angry record—just a “What in the hell’s going on?” kinda record! We wanted this one to be a bit more positive. Some of the songs don’t sound more positive, but we wanted to be like, “If the future is cancelled, maybe this bleak, dark picture does offer glimpses of hope and light in certain pockets.”
Some of the songs, especially “Dance of Joy,” was us wanting to find the answers this time. We wanted to say, “Everything is tough, but what the hell are we gonna do?” We wanted to say, “Let’s start trying to find some answers here.” It’s a natural progression of getting a little bit older, but also, at the same time, we’re still facing some of the problems we faced back then, four years ago. But this time, instead of curling up like a ball, we’re gonna stand up and face them head-on.
What would you say differentiates this album from all the other stuff you’ve done?
On this album, we tried to tie in elements from all of our recordings. We wanted to bring in the big choruses as well as the more mature-sounding song structures from The Future Is Cancelled, but also bring in this new collaborative dynamic where we’re all together writing these songs and challenging each other as musicians. The Future Is Cancelled was very much “My song!” and we learn it, “Leo’s song!” and we learn it. This time, we do that, but instead of saying it’s there and done, we go back and deconstruct these songs and put them back together to see what we can all put forward. It’s a good mix of old stuff to new stuff.
Going deeper into the new stuff: “Hunting Trip.” Can you elaborate on this song?
“Hunting Trip” was a song I wrote while sitting in a diner in my hometown. I grew up in a very small town where hunting was a big thing. We actually had the first day of hunting season off from school. So, in this diner, they had free magazines you could grab and read, and one of those was called The Hunter’s Journal or something like that. I was flipping through it and a story just kinda popped in my head. The narrator is struggling with life due to his father dying on a hunting trip they were on.
On that note, what touchstones do you leave most as a signature on this record? Family? Friends? Lovers and relationships? Work?
I think this record is much more of us looking inward about ourselves. Lyrically, a lot of points trying to be made on this record are: “Things are tough. Problems keep coming up. OK. What are we gonna do about it?” Songs like “Trying Year,” “Dance of Joy,” “Crow,” and “Hunting Trip” all show this kind of adversity to face, and then, ask the question: “All right. Now what?”
Instead of just saying or realizing that everything is bleak in the world, this record I think is us trying to at least attempt to find an answer to them—or maybe not even finding the answer, but at least taking the next step of asking, “What am I gonna do about it?”
“Hunting Trip” has a melody a lot like the soothing parts from “Lake” off the last album, and “The Future Is Cancelled Pt. II” here sounds like the aggressive part of “Lake”—are these songs linked?
“Hunting Trip” was written around the same time as “Lake.” There is a group of songs that I wrote all around the same time as each other that definitely link together somewhat. “Don’t Show Bill” on the new album is another one that was written around this time. “The Future Is Cancelled Pt. II” is another song that we started to write for the last record, but we just scrapped it, because it was getting time to tighten up the screws on the other ones and that one wasn’t fully realized yet. One of the guitar riffs in “The Future Is Cancelled Pt. II” is actually the same riff in “The Future is Cancelled Pt. 1” off The Future Is Cancelled, so those songs definitely share stuff together.
The interconnected songs jump out, because the last album did this for “Brother” and “Shoddy Workmanship,” how the “Things just have to change / My brother, are you OK?” line was repeated. Is this another album on which a lot of songs tie into each other?
Not so much on this one. We started to play around with ideas that call back to others on this album, but I think this time, though, we really wanted to focus on each individual song. There are wacky spacey sounds that start before a number of the songs on the new record, though. That was actually from an old intercom system I had in my house growing up. You could play a cassette tape, and it would play throughout the entire house. It’s so old, though, that now when you do it, it just makes this warped sound. I recorded it on my phone, and we used it to start off or place at the end of some of the songs throughout the new album!
To wrap this up, what message would you like to send to the fans regarding this new album?
I guess if there could be a message, it’s just: “Don’t give up!” Life throws you something new every day. It’s OK if you feel beaten down. It’s OK for them to make you wanna cry and curl up in a ball. But then, you gotta find it within yourself to just attempt to ask the question, “OK. This is terrible. Now what? Where do I go from here? What can I try to do?” You might not know what road to take, but just take some road to get you going.
Is this corny? I feel corny…