Interview with vocalist Jason Cruz | By Gen Handley
When Strung Out were on tour in Australia in 2016, vocalist Jason Cruz says the legendary California punk band came to a major crossroads.
“I thought we were going to break up,” he recalls. “Morale was down, and it was a pretty dark [period]. Me and [bassist] Chris [Aiken] were rooming together, and he wrote what is the first song on the [new] record, ‘The Architect.’ He was doodling around on it, and when I heard it, I knew it was the one. I think it’s one of the best pieces of work we’ve ever done.”
That dark period was a mixed blessing for Strung Out, but the hits kept coming. In February 2018, to the shock of many fans, longtime drummer Jordan Burns left the band on less than amicable terms. On the other hand, Strung Out are not only continuing, they’re also releasing one of their most inspired albums in years on May 11 via longtime home label Fat Wreck Chords.
Black Out the Sky is a collection of eight—mostly—acoustic tracks, including reinterpretations of “Unkoil” from 2002’s An American Paradox and their classic “Matchbook” from 1998’s seminal Twisted By Design.
Cruz says it was the right time to change things up.
“We had to part ways with our drummer of 20 years,” he confirms. “That’s big. After everything we’ve done, we needed to take a pause and create a different type of feeling, so when we come back with an electric record, it’ll have more impact. You can’t keep doing the same thing over again, because it becomes white noise.”
White noise it is definitely not. From eerie, ominous melodies to upbeat, honky-tonk choruses, Black Out the Sky pushes creative and sonic boundaries, making it even more difficult to categorize the band’s already chameleon-like sound. Listeners will see the clouds break in songs like the ironically upbeat “Duke of Sorrow,” but they are drawn back into darkness with songs like “Black Out the Sky,” which paints a bleak picture of what humanity has become.
“When I was living in L.A., I noticed that you can’t see the stars,” Cruz says of the inspiration behind the title track. “Living in L.A. at the time, watching ridiculousness all around you and people just chasing the wrong kind of life—[the song is] about how we lost our connection the basic, to the sky and the stars, and how we just replaced it with halogen bullshit.”
While Black Out the Sky is technically a short LP, it offered an opportunity for experimentation usually provided by the band’s EP releases. Cruz says Strung Out’s EPs tend to be pivotal moments for the band—corners turned down new roads.
“Yeah, the last EP we did, [2000’s Element of Sonic Defiance], was after [late former bassist] Jim [Cherry] left the band—that EP was a turning point,” he says. “An EP is like a tester. It’s quick, and you can leave your comfort zone. Some people might not see it as a real record, but it is. It’s an excuse to do something ballsy.”
While many artists’ electric songs eventually go acoustic, it’s rare to see many acoustic songs make the jump to electric. Cruz notes that, on future tours, they could very well defy that trend with some of these new songs.
“‘The Architect’ would be a great electric song—or ‘Black Out the Sky,’ that would be good too,” he says. “The great thing about acoustic is that it showcases how good these guitar players are.”
Cruz is right—and modest. While showcasing the talents of axe wizards Aiken, Rob Ramos, and Jake Kiley, the album also exposes Cruz’ strength as a vocalist. Black Out the Sky demonstrates the singer’s impressive range and then some, pushing his vocal cords to brinks and clarity unheard on previous records—particularly, the falsetto moments on the closer ballad, “Presidio.”
“You focus more on the writing and melody as opposed to the delivery and the anger,” he reflects about penning acoustic songs. “You can express the same pain in the writing as you can when screaming.”
He pauses for a moment, then adds, “I had more fun, because there was more singing and less screaming—less anger and more melody and longer takes. I think it made us better musicians. I know it did.”
Photo by Alan Snodgrass