Grim Deeds, known in daily life as Dustin Umberger, has released his 20th album. Only The Beast III is out now on OUTLOUD Records. Following Umberger’s ascent and descent takes imagination, a white board, some yarn or dry erase marker, and a dark desire to take a trip in Grim Deeds’ world. Don’t worry, it lightens up once Grim Deeds strikes the first chord. Umberger says he celebrates at the altar of punk and metal.
“I’m definitely interested in all of it. I’d say my instincts are still pretty much, like, rooted in Screeching Weasel, The Queers, Mr. T Experience, traditional pop punk. Maybe even a more minimal minimalistic style than that, like The Lillingtons, I mean early Lillingtons.
“I really love one-and-a-half-minute songs that still feel complete and are catchy, basic enough where you can relate to it. I like the idea that you can bring more people into the conversation, and they don’t get as intimidated by the musical aspect of it. You know, it’s more like a permission giving genre, whereas metal is so flashy and so sounding professional that it can be intimidating, and I was intimidated by it for a long time.”
Following Grim Deeds’ story closely, West Coast-based Umberger is wildly creative. Stuck to his beautiful mind, coming out high from the tweeters and low from the woofers, Grim Deeds is dark, but the music is light in the darkness.
“The character is me,” Umberger says. “That whole thing just kind of came almost like a joke. The first time I played live was wearing the makeup ’cause it was a Halloween show. And then I was like, hey, this is kind of cool. Like, I’m just going to keep doing it and make it into something. So, I kind of developed this character based around the corpse paint. A lot of the songs I sing are pretty, like, dark depressing, but, like, catchy. So, it was kinda like, I want a character to match the feeling of the songs.
“Obviously, it’s pop punk, but I try to sing about kind of gnarly or darker stuff. So, you need a character that conveys like a little bit of both, like the humor and the darkness. I tried to combine that, and plus, like, black metal, as you probably know, it doesn’t have a lot of humor in it. So, I thought it’d be funny to have the corpse paint, but the character’s kind of like this silly, weird entity that’s not as serious as he might be if he was really a black metal dude.”
What started as a Halloween costume soon evolved.
“There’s a persona,” Umberger says. “In the beginning, I really laid it on thick. I tried to have, like, a Norwegian accent and talk like a crazy metalhead guy or whatever, and say shocking things and whatever. I don’t know. It’s kind of at this point, I don’t take that part seriously. So, you’re going to pretty much just get me, and maybe I’ll throw it in a little bit, you know, just to ham it up. But I don’t really commit to it as, like, a schtick that much. I mean, people like it ’cause it’s goofy.”
Nonetheless, Grim Deeds is a piece to a story. Listening to Umberger’s story, it’s easier to understand the metaphor of his music, put away the whiteboard, and see all the facets of his gem.
“It’s my point of view, but it’s a very extreme version of it,” he says. “So, you know, the show Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s about his personality, but he’s presenting himself in a way that he could never be that way in real life. I’m kind of like that, too. I like to make people feel comfortable and have normal conversations with people. So, the songs are kind of like my Larry David self, because I’m putting out, like, these extreme emotions that I would never bring up in casual conversation. My close friends know that that’s part of who I am, but I try to just lay it on as thick as possible in the songs because that’s the outlet that I have for that.”
He’s playing pop punk in corpse paint while striking black metal poses, and the pseudo-greatest hits album cover is manga drawn by Jeff Sorley of Asplenia Studios. It’s Grim Deeds’ underworld, but it takes a global effort on our planet earth to pull it all together.
“If you’re passionate about something, musically or whatever, you can figure out a way to access it in your own style,” Umberger says. “So, I do try to sprinkle in a little bit of metal, and a little bit of this and that, like other styles that I like. And it keeps it more interesting that way too. Even if you’re the best at what you do, if you’re in a specific genre and that’s all you do, then that’s all you’re ever going to be known for. And I want to try to make it more representative of just me as a person rather than, like, I only play this particular style, you know?
“Because then, you can invite other people in, metalheads maybe, or whoever, you know, lo-fi music fans. Like, I try to make it more universal that way, but I’m still pretty much, I don’t want to say confined, but I’m pretty deeply rooted in the, like, underground, pop-punk scene. That’s kind of where my people are.”
Only The Beast III is a best-of album, or a ‘beast’ of, in Deeds’ realm. For this record, Umberger worked with John Kokkonakis from Athens, Greece to choose which songs to include and sequence them, which really helped create the theme.
“The first two times I did Only The Beast, I just asked my friends, ‘What do you think my best songs are?’” Umberger says. “Kind of like what I thought were the best songs for the first one. And then the second one. And then, also, I included songs that I thought my original recording didn’t get across, you know, what I was trying to get across. It’s like, here’s a great song, but it wasn’t recorded very well to begin with. So, I want to give it, like, a new life, you know, with three sets playing.
“But for this particular one, I did something different. I was like, ‘Hey, I want to do another Only The Beast, but why don’t you pick the songs, and you can sequence it, and come up with a concept.’ It was almost like a concept album. I just followed his instructions, and it turned out great. I thought it would be cool to include him as a collaborator because he’s been such a big part of, like, the whole experience for me.”
Only the Beast III then went to Sweden. Cederick Forsberg from Sandviken, Sweden performed the album, recorded it and did the mix and mastering.
“I’ve been able to maintain this, like, illusion of being on every continent because I collaborate with people in other countries, but it’s so easy to do online,” Umberger says. “My friend in Sweden, his name is Cederick Forsberg. He’s just, like, a phenomenal musician, really rare talent. He plays everything; he can write; he can do it all.
“He produces everything at home, and he’s on the heavy metal side of things. Primarily, he has a lot of power metal, speed metal projects that he maintains, and he does plenty of releases, too. So, people should pay attention to his output. And they’ll realize, like, for me to put out a lot of albums, like two-minutes songs or whatever that I record at home, it’s a lot different than him putting out tons of content.”
Kody Templeman from Teenage Bottlerocket and Lillingtons, an early collaborator, appears on Only the Beast III. He co-wrote “Dear David Jones.” Umberger recounts:
“I’ve got some good memories with Cody and one of the first times we really, like, hung out as bros. We did this trip to Denver, totally like the movie, The Hangover, like let’s just go to Denver, dude. And we just went to record shops and hung out and goofed around. It was great. We even went to a Casa Bonita, the Mexican restaurant, and saw the cliff diver and everything. It was cool. It was a great music scene there too, by the way, really great music. We saw the Descendents while we were there. We saw Ghost the same weekend, and it was epic.”
Trying to put Grim Deeds in context leaves a person dazed, staring into the void. Embrace the vortex, fight the fight, breathe deep in other worlds—take it all back to this world, and walk away from the whiteboard. It’s art. It tells a familiar story, a story of a fucked-up world where a warrior can live out their destiny.
“I always kind of write from experience, not necessarily about my life, but a lot of the songs are pretty, you know, literal,” Umberger says. “Literal in terms of being about me or about, you know, experiences I’ve had. But there’s, you know, it just depends on a typical album that I do; there’ll be some straight-up silly songs and some just ridiculous kind of topics or commentary, and some loud songs maybe, and maybe some heavy metal stuff, you know, like different moods call for different things.
“But ,I think like the essential Grim Deeds song is something that’s, like, short and catchy and has some kind of like introspective lyrics, often pretty dark. But I try to, like, offset that negativity with catchy melodies and things to try to bring it to, like, a more relatable level, you know, ‘cause if it was all just dark and depressing, it wouldn’t be very fun to listen to. But you know, a lot of pop punk is just all fun and no seriousness. So, I wanted to make it a little bit of both.”
It takes a minute to adjust your eyes to what your ears are hearing. It seems to be the meaning on the track “Life Is A Nightmare.” Grim Deeds croons, “Life is a nightmare come true.” Although with Grim Deeds, Umberger makes his dreams come true. It reads like good manga, ups and downs, dark versus light. In the end, all sides are left to lick their wounds.
Check out Only The Beast III in full here:
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Photo courtesy of Grim Deeds