Interview with vocalist Jason Cruz | by Joshua Maranhas | Photo by Alan Snodgrass
Songs of Armor and Devotion, released Aug. 9 on Fat Wreck Chords, is the latest release by the pioneering Fat band from Simi Valley, California, Strung Out. It’s another step forward for vocalist Jason Cruz and company, something for fans to chew on and think about while enjoying a sound that’s true and familiar.
In 1994, their debut full-length, Another Day in Paradise, cauterized painful skating slams for many listeners, made it feel worth the time and effort and encouraged another try. In 2019, Songs of Armor and Devotion heals emotional wounds, closing them with strong, thoughtful lyrics. “I guess we’re old-school: every song deserves everything you got. That’s how we’ve always looked at making this,” Cruz says. “If people are going to believe and buy records, every song deserves everything you got. It deserves your life.”
Cruz is riding a motorcycle in the desert near a small Mexican town as he stops to reflect on the last five months spent making Songs of Armor and Devotion. “The four main writers are still operating on all eight cylinders,” he says. “I think that’s Strung Out’s biggest strength, that we all write. It’s a core writing group, and we work well together. We’re more creative than ever. We found a groove.”
Cruz seems most interested in feelings. He explains how he feels about the album, saying, “It’s a little more reckless than the other ones. It’s full drum tracks; RJ [Shankle] plays full drum tracks, full takes from front to back. To me, that’s essential in creating a groove, an organic feel, and I think that’s my favorite thing about this record. It’s reckless, but there’s a cohesion to it.”
It’s a trusty album from the four longtime bandmates with a new beat from Shankle, who joined in 2018. Strung Out cranked out 18 songs in one month but went into the studio with room for something spontaneous to happen. “Everything is clicking right now,” Cruz explains. “There’s been a lot of turmoil in the past. I think, right now, we have a little bit of harmony going on and a little bit of momentum. I think that shows in this record with the cadence and the phrasing, the swing of the record.”
The words jump into the world visually from the first verse of the opener, “Rebels and Saints”: “Down every road, through the scars, through the cold / We got everything we need to get by / All we break, all we plan, all it takes to understand / We are brothers, hand in hand, win or lose.”
Each song is its own story held in a complete album, like chapters in a book, from the beginning to the fade out on the closer, “Bloody Knuckles”: “We gave it all / We lost our minds / We don’t need to be forgiven / Forgiven you never asked to be alive / Forgiven for all the hell that you survived / Forgiven.”
According to the vocalist, Songs of Armor and Devotion has an overall theme of love. “There’s always a theme to every record,” Cruz says. “The last record, [2015’s Trasmission.Alpha.Delta.], was ‘We are all just transmitters of energy, ideas and thoughts, transmitting and receiving. Our ego is nothing. Our ego weighs us down.’ This album is more about love and loss, putting up boundaries or guards and breaking and shattering them. The songs stick with you, thy rod and thy staff. There’s something to get you through, to get you through the darkness. Love, that’s what these are; these songs are life, and they are love. Stand for love.”
Cruz is a selfless creator. He doesn’t see the writing as his own as much as a manifesto given to the world. Once delivered, he sees it as a bird flying free, a work of art that will reveal itself to each listener and feeler. “I enjoy someone who loves what they’re hearing,” he says. “I love to hear what they think about it and what they feel about it. It makes me feel like I’m not flying blind anymore.”
Cruz cites an example from a recent round of shows, noting, “We’ve been doing ‘Daggers,’ and ‘Daggers’ is really fun live. As I sing them every night—I said earlier, the songs have a theme of love to all of them. I meant that, but there’s other things going on in the songs that I’m not aware of, and once I start singing them, I have moments of clarity. You don’t always know why you do something; [you think] you’re motivated by a single thing: love, hate, fear, regret, whatever. You know what you’re motivated by, but all the intricacies of what you’re feeling and going through don’t reveal themselves until later.”
From one’s first skinned knee or bruised hip to that sharp pain in the brain, Strung Out have been there. Another Day in Paradise’s “Away” picked flesh up off the curb and rolled fast. Songs of Armor and Devotion picks up the heart and pushes it up a hill of emotion, avoiding a mental hall of meat. Strung Out keep the strong stronger, creating an introspective album that provides shield and restoration to fans old and new. It’s still real very to Cruz.
“We have to struggle to do things,” he concludes. “Something happens with a connection somewhere with somebody, [and] it makes me feel like, when I’m away from my family, that it’s something bigger. I think I need that. Sometimes, you just get down and wonder, ‘Is this even doing anything? Am I wasting my time?’ I want to live my life to do something good. I don’t want to just be a band, living off people’s applause; I want to contribute something positive to people’s goals and inspire them. I like to know that I’m doing good.”