“There is no backstory,” Adam McIlwee says with a laugh. “Pat just said it one day.”
The topic at hand is Pay For Pain, the name of his new band with drummer Pat Brier and vocalist/bassist Dennis Mishko. The trio first played music together more than a decade ago as a part of Tigers Jaw, which McIlwee’s baritone croon and Brier and Mishko’s punk-meets-indie rhythm section helped catapult to the forefront of ‘emo revival’ debates. There’s evidence of their long friendship in a nonchalance to their relationship that falls somewhere between intuitive and haphazard.
Imagine, for example, that the band had neglected to choose a name until part-way through the recording of their debut EP when Brier suggested Pay For Pain without explanation. That self-titled effort, out June 12 on Dark Medicine, took a similarly unhurried path to existence. The former bandmates first rekindled their musical connection together around 2016 but only sporadically, with few of their early song ideas continuing on.
“It was just an excuse to hang out,” McIlwee recalls of those early jams. “It was probably Pat who did the most in terms of making sure that we were playing regularly and actively, taking the next steps, because I’m not really great at that.”
“And I’m probably worse,” Mishko adds.
At the time, all of the members were busy. The three had left Tigers Jaw together in 2013, part-way through recording the band’s fourth album, Charmer. After that, Brier and Mishko shifted their focus to Three Man Cannon, the somewhat similar but more sprawling project they’d been in before joining Tigers Jaw. McIlwee took a more unexpected turn with his solo project Wicca Phase Springs Eternal and the related emo rap collective GothBoiClique. Brier also put time into his own solo project, Queen Jesus.
“I assumed at some point we would all play music together but I didn’t know when it would be,” Mishko says. “I kind of just thought it was going to be fun, like we would get together sometimes, hang out, drink a bunch of beers.”
Pay For Pain’s music appropriately plays with a buzzed, basement drawl. Most similar to the three members’ later years in Tigers Jaw or more recent Three Man Cannon albums, the self-titled effort sounds distinctly lively and raw, event folky at times despite the electric guitars and punk-tinged drumming.
The EP’s six songs were recorded mostly live, typically with an extra guitar overdubbed, by Matt Schimelfenig (also of Three Man Cannon) at The Bunk in Henryville, Pennsylvania. That practice of recording together as a band makes it one of the most natural recordings the members have made in their collaborations, but there are still similarities.
“I don’t think we sound like Tigers Jaw, but I also don’t think the sound is totally removed from what we were doing in Tigers Jaw because I write songs a certain way, and regardless of what project that’s for, they’re going to sound like they came from me,” McIlwee says. “I think that’s just a consequence of me starting another band.”
There’s certainly a familiar air to the songwriting, but it’s a path that can be traced musically and lyrically across projects. “You Take Control Of My Heart” finds McIlwee lamenting a lost love for bands, singing “I stopped listening to bands because they’re haunting me now / they sound sexless and so fucking soft to me now.” He estimates the track dates to shortly after he left Tigers Jaw, and it echoes, in equal parts, that band’s endearing ennui and Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s gloomy swagger.
“Lyrically, theme-wise, I feel like all my songs are about me,” McIlwee says. “If you’ve ever listened to any of my songs, you’re not really getting anything too new there, just an updated version of that.”
Mishko, who fronts half of the tracks, pitches the uniting element in his songwriting here as “being at home alone with two cats for a long time,” a surprisingly accurate summary of the mood. But, the charm to much of Pay For Pain is the aimless feeling of uncertainty. The sense that things just happen in our lives and keep happening. And for Pay For Pain, that’s likely how things will continue. Both Mishko and McIlwee express a desire and expectation that the band will continue but admit it hasn’t been a point of conversation.
“We never talk about it, so we don’t have a definite idea,” Mishko says. “Which is nice, to be both all on the same page but, at the same time, on totally unstable footing because you have no idea what’s going on.”