Interview with vocalist/bassist Sean-Paul Pillsworth | By Morgan Y. Evans
Maybe punk isn’t dead, but it has had plenty of near death experiences. What do you get when you mix vocalist and bassist Sean-Paul Pillsworth of Nightmares For A Week and Anadivine; drummer Justin Meyer of Graffiti Souls, Anadivine, and Jerk Magnet; and guitarists John Collura of The Ataris and Mike Saffert of Hidden In Plain View? The breath of new life into pop punk’s lungs! Punk may be on its ninth life, but New York’s The Red Owls are its equivalent of a green mushroom in Super Mario Bros. Their debut EP Do You Feel Any Better is available via Paper + Plastick.
How did you and Justin Meyer decide to form a new pop punk band?
It is a throwback, and it is something that’s the style I’ve wanted to play now for the last two years. A little faster and embracing some of the bands I was listening to growing up. The band I was playing in, Nightmares For A Week, didn’t have the ambition to play that way and it wasn’t in our style to take that on. I wrote a bunch of songs and had Justin, our drummer, come over. I said, “These are maybe gonna be new Jerk Magnet songs,” the first band we were in. I thought it would be fun and get everybody to play on ‘em. We did four or five songs as demos. But then, I fished around people I knew, and John Collura—who was in Beefcake and then went on to be in The Ataris—I got his number from [producer] John Naclerio and sent Collura a text. “Do you still like to play fast, melodic punk rock?” He said, “I haven’t in a while, but I’d like to.” I sent him some of the stuff I did, and then, he sent me all this stuff he’d been sitting on. Songs. He’s an amazing writer. No lyrics, but verses and choruses. It was great stuff. So, we took his stuff on and booked a day, and it instead became The Red Owls EP.
Your vocals are in impressive mix of raw punk and professional studio takes…
I’ve battled between just recording what I do live, a fair representation, and having too much of a fascination with Bad Religion punk rock choirs or vocal harmonies that blow me away. So I say I’m going to keep it raw, and then, I hear the end result and it’s not [laughs]. “If we bury the harmonies, they’ll be a supporting thing.” But they are always right there. I didn’t want a studio performance, and it is stuff I can sing live. Nightmares For A Week was half sing, half yell, and was easier to pull off. This is stuff that I’m confident I can pull off live.
Does that differ from when you were originally doing pop punk?
Yeah. I was elected to be singer even in bands after that, but I didn’t have a strong sense of pitch. I used to torture every engineer we were in the studio with. “That’s kind of cool, but you’re flat.” I had no concept of how to do it other than the way I was doing it. So, it would take me forever. For me, it took a lot longer, I don’t know why. I wonder what kind of singer I’d be if I didn’t look up to so many nontraditional singers. All the guys I grew up with were like Fat Mike from NOFX or Milo [Aukerman] from Descendents. I wonder how many bad habits I picked up from punk rock [laughs].
Like the way Jello Biafra is great, but obviously being himself and doing his own thing, right?
Yeah. And you go in the studio, and the engineer doesn’t know what you’re doing and it’s like, “No, it’s supposed to be like this.” Sometimes I’ve compromised and changed stuff, but I wonder what it would’ve been like otherwise.
“Just make it sound like gold motherfucker. You wouldn’t say that to Taylor Swift!”
Yeah. She sounds fine now [laughs].
We’re writing for the album and doing shows. We’re doing Jersey and Boston. FEST. Kingston, [N.Y.], our hometown. […] We did things backwards in this band, where the demo was actually a release. So, we wrote and recorded a demo that’s now a release on Paper + Plastick. It’s going to be released before we’ve played a show! I’ve had a friendship with Vinnie [Fiorello] from P+P ever since we did the “Nightmares Split” [with Nightmares Of You]. He loved the last Nightmares For A Week record, Civilian War. I thought he was gonna put it out, but the demos of the record he heard weren’t there for him. I get it. It’s an investment for him and he wasn’t 100 percent sure on it. So, we did it ourselves, but the irony was, it was on Vinnie’s top 10 year end list! That coulda been your record! He always tells me it’s still a good record. Maybe he’ll repress it someday.
Do you already have more Red Owls songs?
10 ideas. I won’t even call them songs yet. The idea is to write, like, 20 songs, and then have the time to look at them and decide which are good. I’ve always written enough to make a full-length. This time, I want to over-write. Let’s keep writing.
Red Owls’ music has the energy of pop punk, but also strong songwriting…
I think pop punk has a huge range. John—when he was in The Ataris, they were definitely pop punk songs, but in a dark key or with a twist. He writes like that and is really good at it. But yeah, there’s a huge fork in the road, or probably a fork before this fork. If someone asked, “What is The Red Owls?” I wouldn’t say we’re State Champs. Who are great. And from right up the road in Albany. We’re a continuation of the late ‘90s scene. It’s what we wanted to play. […] It really was a strong scene. That’s the punk that still leaks out of me. Those influences are always there. I think there are great bands still doing that style. The Flatliners or After The Fall are great, if not new.
Earlier, you mentioned getting nervous and puking before a Jerk Magnet show in high school. How do you handle live shows these days?
That’s one of the only places in my life where I can do that: let go. I have a crippling anxiety disorder. I think with the music thing, it’s the one thing where I am pretty good at doing it, so I want it to come off as being fuckin’ awesome. I’ve definitely botched a shitload of shows when I drank too much. […] I like to have a good time, but I’m only up there for a half hour, so I want to suck it up and be the best I can. Especially in The Red Owls, these guys are great players. I’m right in the middle, being the vocalist, and I feel a little more pressure. I’m happy The Red Owls got on FEST from [them only] really knowing me from Nightmares For A Week. FEST, I know, that’s the weekend every year where the shit really comes together. I’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of [fests], from Warped Tour to ones that only lasted a year. But FEST, there’s something different about it. I’m psyched and hope we go over. I don’t know when we’re playing, but I know it’s on Saturday!
You cut your teeth on All Ages shows growing up. What do you think about Warped Tour maybe being 21 and over next year as a result of all the alleged substance abuse and sexual misconduct? Those are huge problems, but is it punishing the fans? It’s loss of revenue for Warped Tour too…
Yeah, but in a way, I think that says something about the integrity of Kevin Lyman. He could make a lot more money if he kept it for the kids. I read all the stuff like, “Should our scene be safer?” My scene has always been safe. Going back, there were dangerous things or violence or drugs. Going to see All Out War at 16 or 17 every weekend, I don’t know how “safe” that was. But it’s not like this. […] All this sexual assault stuff—if Lyman cuts it off and you have to be 21 to get in, I mean… I read something asking if the scene needs mentors. Maybe. Even music videos by some younger bands, the subject matter of the video, you can tell what they’re thinking. [It’s] them and the hot girl. It’s like watching a Poison video in the ‘80s. Hey, I liked the Warped Tour 10 years ago. There’s nobody on it [now] I want to see. But it would be torture to stand there all day. If it was 21 and over, they could have Rancid, Lagwagon, and Agnostic Front come back. Just stop there. [Laughs]