Interview with Direct Hit! singer and guitarist Nick Woods | By Nick Harrah
Since starting Direct Hit! back in 2007, founding member singer and guitarist Nick Woods has seen some members come and go. Now, with a solidified lineup since 2013, the Milwaukee based punk band have released their third full-length, the 12 song concept album, Wasted Mind, on Fat Wreck Chords.
Woods takes some time before a show to talk about his band and the long, strange trip it has been thus far.
You guys went on the road as part of the Hepatitis Bathtub Tour with NOFX and Mean Jeans. How were the shows with your new Fat Wreck labelmates?
It wassurreal man. [Laughs] It was crazy. It was crazy going out on tour and playing for more people each night than we would basically on an entire tour by ourselves. The shows were between 1000 and 2500 people every single night. We’re used to playing in really small clubs and basements where 40 or 50 people come to see us play.
It was totally wild. It was totally surreal.
What was your reaction when you signed to Fat Wreck Chords, a label that has been a champion for independent punk culture for 25 years?
[Laughs] Uh, that’s a tough feeling to describe, man. I’ve been following Fat Wreck since I was 15 or 16 years old. Really, the first punk record that I ever heard was Strung Out, and, I mean, I’d never heard anything like that before. It was crazy to me that music could be that fast and that wild and powerful and technical.
Everything I was listening to then was just kind of stuff that I’d heard on the radio or what my parents would play for me. So, that was kind of my first exposure to, like—not really independent music, because I was listening to some stuff like that at the time—but, definitely, like, a whole new kind of culture surrounding punk rock and independent music in general. For somebody who grew up in the suburbs like me, where you don’t get a lot of exposure to smaller bands and the underground like you do in the big city, it was just totally mind-blowing.
I’ve followed the label since then, watching the bands that would sign, the music that they’d put out, and the kind of attitude that they projected. I had that kind of interest in the years that followed. I’m 31 years old now. Wow, that’s weird to say. I’ve watched that label for 15 or 16 years. You never think that you’re gonna end up being able to work with the kind of people that inspired you and the scene that kind of opened your mind to the world.
How did this improbable punk rock journey start for you, as you started Direct Hit! while you were in The Box Social?
Deep into that band: it started in 2003 probably, we broke up in 2008, [and] it was probably around 2007 when Direct Hit! started. I had these songs written that didn’t really fit the group that I was playing with at the time, and I wanted to play them and I wanted to record them, because it was kind of my thing that I’d created, you know?
So, it kind of just went from there. The Box Social broke up in 2008, and I kept doing Direct Hit! just as kind of a hobby or a basement project or something like that. But, after that band broke up, I just needed another project to work on and that was really all that I was working on at the time.
So, it was strange to me. We did a bunch of these little EPs that I just wanted to put on the Internet for free for whoever wanted to download them. I don’t really know how or why, but a couple of people who actually had a voice in the punk rock scene—Lisa Garelick at Kind Of Like Records and Scotty Sandwich at Death To False Hope—both kind of picked up what we were doing and kind of ran with it a little bit, and people started paying more attention. It just kind of went from there.
All of a sudden, there were people asking me to write songs for 7”s, and there were people who wanted to do splits with our band. So, I found myself writing at a much quicker pace than I had before that. That’s just kind of how it started and [it] sort of snowballed from there, I guess.
Eventually, Toby [Jeg] from Red Scare [Industries] picked up on it, that led to Fat Mike hearing us, which is, I guess, why we ended up on Fat Wreck. It’s… I can’t really explain it. [Laughs] There’s a lot of people that ask how we ended up on Fat Wreck, and it’s such a long, convoluted, random, ridiculous story that I don’t even know how to explain it all.
How did bringing on guitarist Devon Kay solidify Direct Hit! and make you a better band?
It was definitely the biggest first step that we took, adding Devon to the band, and that was because Devon could sing and play guitar [laughs]. I wasn’t too exclusive when the band kind of started off. I would play with anybody who wanted to play. We were always… It’s really difficult to find… I mean, a group like The Flatliners is kind of a good example, or a rare case of a band that has been the same four guys for—I don’t know how long they’ve been a band, it seems like 40 years. It’s just crazy how long that lineup has lasted. That’s a really rare thing, I think. It’s really difficult to keep a group of four people together for every single show and every single record forever. So, I didn’t want to stress myself out having to find a solid lineup for one single band, and then having to change the band name, and then having to write new songs every time somebody shifted in and out.
At the time, I would play with whoever wanted to play with me, whoever wanted to play the songs that I wrote, and whoever would kind of support this sort of creative vision that I had for the group. When we added [drummer] Danny [Walkowiak] in 2009—it’s been a few years since we’ve played a show without Danny. It was the same kind of thing with Devon, we had a solid core with me and Danny for a couple of years, but we had people kind of drifting in and out on guitar, keyboard and other stuff. Having Devon eliminated the need for all that, because he was so good on guitar and he was such a good singer.
After that, we added Steve [Maury] on bass, in, I think it was 2013, and that was when we really started to collaborate, because Steve could write parts, and we were kind of all on the same page with what we wanted the band to sound like and where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do.
There are people that have helped keep the band alive over the years, but the four dudes that are in the group now—me, Devon, Steve, and Danny—are sort of the best representation of what Direct Hit! is. I tell people that Direct Hit! has been a band since 2007, but that’s just because that’s when I started writing and releasing stuff on the Internet. The real lineup didn’t really solidify until 2013.
There is no shortage of great bands that start as side or basement projects, just setting out to have fun. Sounds like your band, huh?
I think you find that is sort of a common thing with groups that get really successful. I think audiences can tell when you’re trying really, really hard as a band. I mean, I’ve seen groups that have been really prepared and struggled and have really tried to make it, you know? And I didn’t really want to obligate our audience to ensure that we would “break” or something like that, or turn into something bigger. I wanted the band to be 100 percent about fun. Not tell people what to do or how to think or anything like that. I just wanted to have people come out and see us play, you know?
So, I think that’s the reason that a lot of these bands that were never meant to be huge end up being huge, because they don’t push their audiences one way or another. They don’t try to force people to buy merch. They don’t try to force people to talk about them. They just play as well as they can, and I think that attitude tends to rub off.
Before we get into the concept(s) behind the new record, Wasted Mind, how proud are you of the finished product, and how stoked are you for your fans to hear it?
I think it’s our best record yet. Without a doubt. I think it’s our best sounding record. We definitely worked harder on it than any of our previous records. This was the first time that we went into a studio for three weeks and worked really hard on making sure everything was perfect. We spent a lot of time following up those sessions to make sure that every single song sounded exactly the way we wanted it to sound.
There were a lot of really talented people involved in it. Mike Kennerty, who produced Brainless God, did this one for us too. Andy Carpenter, who mixed the last Supersuckers record, mixed it for us. Emily Lazar, who has just a crazy list of credits—she mastered the last Coldplay record, she mastered the last couple of Foo Fighters records, mastered David Comes To Life by Fucked Up—I mean, records that I really respect. Having her involved was nuts.
I think it’s really good. [Laughs] For me, at least.
Following up your last concept album, Brainless God, you’re exploring different themes and concepts on Wasted Mind. Drug use and relativity are a couple… Can you expand on what you’re going for and what it’s about?
It’s a cartoonish vision of drug use, I think, is the biggest thing. You watch movies like “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” or you’re watching the [David] Cronenberg version of “Naked Lunch,” or you’re reading [William S.] Burroughs’ version of “Naked Lunch”—I mean, those are two obviously chemically altered people, but they had a sort of caricaturist way of describing drug use and the effects of it, this kind of overblown, fantastical view of it.
Our band has never been about talking about reality or talking about politics, or feelings or emotions or anything like that. I don’t wanna be the guy telling you how you should feel about something. I want the listener to be able to hear our band and take away from it their own meaning. Or no meaning. It’s up to you when you listen to it. I don’t wanna have to tell you what you should think or what you should feel. Our music is about entertainment. I used to describe it as a sort of musical Jerry Bruckheimer: there’s a lot of explosions and sort of this cinematic action movie view of music.
That’s the way that I think our new record still goes. I spent a lot of time watching movies about, not necessarily drug use, but about the horrors of the mind and imagination and stuff like that, and expanding what it is that you know just based on your own brain. I think that’s what Wasted Mind is about more than anything else. It’s about exploring your own mind and your own vision, more than it is sort of following along with what actually occurs in reality.
There’s a lot in it about relativity and perspective, and—not to get too pretentious—it’s sort of what all of it comes to mean in real life, when you’re not really living in the real world, you’re imagining something else or you have a vision of something. How does that come to bear on reality, to me? So, in a way, it’s kind of a commentary on our own music, since we never really write about real life topics. What are the implications of that? Why we say what we say, why we do what we do. Um, it kind of examines that from a lot of different perspectives depending on the songs and the character.
How crazy is it to look back on the beginning of your band, getting signed to a legit punk label, and getting some level of validation for your artistic vision?
That was mind-bending to see, the realization of something that I’d dreamed about since I was a little kid. There aren’t many times in your life when that kind of thing happens. You spend 10, 15 years working on something and trying to be as good as your heroes and the people you care about. To be recognized by them on the level that we have, where they are actually interested in putting our music out, um… I don’t really know how to describe that.