Interview: Justin Sinkovich of The Poison Arrows Talks New Album and the Secrets to Their Longevity

Since forming in 2006, The Poison Arrows have released four albums of intricate, emotional music doing themselves and their hometown of Chicago proud. They are a band that have deep roots in their hometown’s music scene. Guitarist/vocalist Justin Sinkovich has played in Thumbnail and atombombpocketknife, while drummer Adam Reach has played in Pink Avalanche, and bassist Patrick Morris played with Pittsburgh’s legendary Don Caballero. In addition, Justin has worked for Touch & Go Records and ran his own label, File 13, which released all their music up until their new album, Crime And Soda, which just came out on Solid Brass Records (which also happens to be a new label Sinkovich has co-founded and co-manages).

Crime And Soda comes only a year after their previous album, War Regards, which was delayed due to the pandemic. In addition, the past few years have seen Sinkovich and Reach move out of Chicago. Sinkovich now lives in Galena, Illinois and splits time between his home there and Chicago, while Reach moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Despite their distance from each other, they were able to get together and record Crime And Soda quite efficiently, resulting in another excellent album.

Since they have a new album out and have been quite busy the past few years, we decided this was the perfect time to send Sinkovich some questions in order to get the lowdown on the new album, their new way of existing as a band, and the secret to their longevity, among other topics.

Below are his well-thought-out and in-depth answers.

 

What was the writing process like for Crime And Soda? Did living far apart from each other affect it, whether good or bad? 

It was different, and in many ways positive. We talked to bands who live separately, and they offered us encouragement and advice. They said that the time we spent writing and rehearsing would be more focused and productive, and they were correct. Instead of meeting up weekly to rehearse and write, often screwing around and rehashing the same songs from the previous week, we converged on our practice space over several long weekends with a plan, a sense of urgency, and an appreciation for being together.

There would be homework, and ironically, for the first time, we had and still have our own private practice space that otherwise mostly sits dormant, so the gear is ready to turn on and play. We had charts of the songs on the walls and have microphones and recording gear set up and ready to go, and with that, we had updated demos of every jam and every song. When we walked into the studio, we had virtually every note and lyric written and demo’ed. But yeah, again, it’s just different. Adam is usually staying with one of us, and that’s a band weekend, so there is a focus on the band, and then often hanging out afterwards, going to dinner, having a little get-together with our friends and family one night, it’s a nice process that feels more intense and serious and is a nice detour from our weekly lives.

Greg Norman has recorded all your albums at Electrical Audio. Why is he your go-to guy?

Greg and Electrical is one of the best recording options and the world and is right down the street from our practice space. Greg has not only recorded every PA album, but also the last Thumbnail album and most of the ABPK albums of mine. There’s a comfort level that is extremely important for a compressed production schedule. There can be a big jump in anxiety level when you walk into a big nice studio that you are being charged hundreds of dollars a day for, which could really ruin a record. We feel relaxed; we have a close and casual relationship; we joke around, but we stay on task and serious about getting everything done. It’s the trust and comfort mixed with the high quality and efficient recording that is so special.

Greg knows what we want, what we are capable of, our strengths and weaknesses, when we should do something over, when that is the best it is going to get. We know Greg and Electrical will translate what we have written into a good-sounding album that properly represents our ideas and the sound in our heads. We only afford ourselves three days in a studio. When we complete a couple of takes of a song, we can ask Greg if we are good or if we should do another one. He identifies little places that Patrick or I need to fix, and we can quickly knock that out.

How did the recording sessions go? 

The music went seamlessly, honestly, no different and maybe a little easier than the last album sessions. There’s a pace in those three studio days that is familiar. We have a feel for certain markers in day one, two, and three, as to where we need to be at what time to get the album done properly. There is a nice level of consistency from album to album to make a quality album.

The process is, we record the drums, bass, and guitar together. Make sure the drums are right first, the bass is almost always done as well, but Patrick fixes a few notes here and there and adds a few ideas. It takes us a while to get set up and rolling, but then each song’s bass and drums are almost always done in two takes, one that is good and then we try one more to see what happens once the pressure is off. Two or three songs may give us some problems where we have to do a couple of additional takes, but that’s it.

The songs are pretty physically and mentally exhausting, so we don’t play them over and over in the studio or in rehearsal, that wouldn’t help. Once the drums and bass are done, I fix a few sloppy parts of the main guitar and then double all of the guitars with a variation of the main guitar for the other side of the stereo mix. Those doubles are almost all first takes. Then I add a few different lead guitar overdubs after that to change up the sound and add some dynamics. I tried to add at least one of these to every song on Crime and Soda. I was driving from our house in Galena, IL to Chicago almost every week for work, so I usually wrote those guitar lines in my head while driving and listening to the demos and did all of them in the studio except for maybe five or six overdub guitars at our practice space, but I only spent a few hours on those.

The one aspect that did not go as expected was the vocals. I was prepared to do all of the vocals at Electrical Audio. We had to cancel our original session dates because Patrick and I both had very serious and oddly unrelated cases of COVID. It took me several months to fully recover, and I blew my voice out early when the vocal session started. I only got two songs done, even though I tried all of them. They just sounded really hoarse and strained after tha,t which I didn’t quite realize when I was doing it. So that unfortunately wasted several hours at Electrical when we could have used the studio for something else. It worked out, though, because I went out to our house in Galena a couple of weeks later. My wife was out of town, and I was feeling better, so I finished up all of the vocals and any other little overdubs over a weekend out in the woods, taking breaks every couple of hours.

We mixed the album with Brian Deck over less than three days like we did with War Regards, a part of the formula that I glad we discovered. I hadn’t worked with Brian since the ABPK first EP and last album, and he, similar to Greg with recording, can be trusted to capture our vision without stress and efficiently in the time we have in an expensive studio.

This time, it was just Patrick and I in the studio, and then we would send mixes immediately to Adam who was in Chapel Hill. Brian mixed it straight through an SSL and Neve console and not on the computer again like on War Regards in his Narwhal Studio, which provided a particularly high level of fidelity in combination with recording at Electrical. There is also no recall on those mixes because they are not on the computer, so when they are done, that is it, so it went fast, and a lot of the final decisions, we would just leave it to whatever Brian thought was best.

There were a couple of tracks he had basically finished before we even got to the studio. This is a much different process from the first couple of records that I mixed partially or entirely over months on the computer, unnecessarily belaboring things and screwing all kinds of stuff up I’m sure. Then, finally, our good friend Bob Weston mastered the record, which is always an enjoyable process that is on point. We hang out with Bob pretty regularly, like my wife and I go out to dinner with he and his wife; they come out to our house in the woods, so again, a very comfortable process, and he’s one of the best mastering engineers out there.

And then let’s certainly not forget about the artwork; David Babbitt has designed so many legendary records over the decades, particularly for Touch and Go and Wax Trax. He is part of the family and has worked on all of our albums. He used some of Alexis Fleisig’s photos for the album which we have done before, and it turned out great. The last couple of albums have been David and Adam managing that, which is helpful for me so I can focus on the music and the label.

Your previous album, War Regards, release got pushed back from 2020 to 2022. Why follow that up so quickly with another album?

War Regards was totally done by the start of 2020, so really,releasing Crime and Soda this year is a pretty normal three-year cycle for us and many bands; it just doesn’t seem that way to the public because War Regards was not technically available until 2022. It sucks because we had a U.S. and Europe tour ready to go for War Regards in 2020 which of course were cancelled. We had talked to some friends who had just released albums when COVID hit, and they strongly urged us to just wait it out which we did. Copies of the album were floating around for a couple of years before it was released, so it all just felt a little bit like a big misstep which was a bummer because I think the record is solid. We wanted a do-over, I guess, so we got right to work on Crime and Soda, writing and recording the entire thing in a year which is pretty quick I think, particularly for a band living separately from each other.

The new album is a bit more optimistic and a little more airier than War Regards. Was that on purpose? Or was it just how it turned out? 

Definitely, and it was both a natural result and an intentional direction. The previous records were immediate responses and coping mechanisms due to some chaos and dark times for different members of the band at various times. This record came out of relatively content times for each of us, and seemingly being on the other side of a very tough couple of years during the pandemic.

I personally am married and happily living in Chicago working with a lot of artists, then otherwise living in the woods of Galena surrounded by nature. I felt at peace yet driven to make an interesting record, so I wanted to that to translate into what became Crime And Soda. I also wanted to change it up a little, and thought to myself, this record shouldn’t be so dramatic; I want to try to lighten up. We talked a little about it while writing, and it seems like the whole album followed that direction. The darkness that did translate onto the record is written in the past tense, much of which came from a lot of self-reflection from being out in the woods during COVID.

What is the story behind the “The Joy Amber Scam”? Do all the songs have a story behind them?

All the songs have stories on this one, more so than previous albums, where some of the songs were more abstract. The title track, “Crime and Soda,” is simply a club soda, cranberry, and lime. It’s what I drink at bars a lot now that I don’t drink alcohol, which is a new development over the past two years and since the last album. The term and song speaks to some of the self-destructive tendencies that I witnessed from drinking. That sobriety also contributed to the less dark and dramatic nature of the album. Instead of trying to recreate a Baudelaire-esque late-night session, drinking wine and writing a song, I was usually up at 7 a.m. writing and drinking coffee instead, inherently creating a different mood while writing and producing my portion of the album.

“Imminently Accompanied by Dragonflies” came from the day we had to say goodbye to our 17-year-old dog. The vet came out to our backyard in the woods; it was a beautiful day, and dragonflies were landing on him as he took his last breaths. It was an iconic moment in my life. Our other dog, who was 16, died a couple of months later in a similar way. I started researching dragonflies, and in many cultures they signify rebirth and transformation.

Speaking of which, “Sharp Young Teeth” is about getting older and mortality, but the phrase came from one of our new dogs that we rescued; he’s a puppy and likes to chew on things, including my arm; he has “Sharp Young Teeth,” and the song speaks to the transition of those old dogs passing, and now we are giving better lives to these two new dogs which is a faster cycle of life with dogs, but the same as humans, many of whom we lost over the past few years due to COVID.

All of the songs have these sorts of stories attached to them. To answer your question (sorry, I’m long-winded today!), The Joy Amber Scam’s” lyrics come from my wife and I vacationing in Mexico last year for her birthday. On the actual day of her birthday, en route to a convenience store called OXXO to gather a few supplies, two guys invited us into their jewelry and gift store to sample some tequila.

We were thrilled, and they filled shot glasses as fast as my wife and a few other patrons could drink them. After several drinks, a guy from the store asked me to buy some bottles for my wife as a gift. I agreed on a U.S. dollar price; the guy displayed the price on a calculator and handed him a credit card. When I got the receipt back, they had tried to confuse me with the conversion rate from Mexican pesos to U.S. dollars, and I quickly realized he charged my card about $350 U.S. They were getting people drunk and then running this scam, but I wasn’t drinking, so I caught it.

He refused to refund the card, so after a few minutes, I just stopped, took a deep breath, and told him I would have my credit card company refund the charges as soon as I left. I immediately researched the store, and this was a well-documented hustle that dozens of people posted about on travel websites. I called the credit card company and easily had the charges reversed. It started a process where the store’s entire account was frozen due to multiple claims. My card statement listed being charged by “Joy Amber.”

My wife and I went back to the hotel beach, and after I calmed down for a few minutes, I started listening to the instrumental demo of this track on my headphones and writing lyrics which are a pretty literal run-through of “The Joy Amber Scam.” Writing the song on the same day helped me feel like I got some retribution, and my wife and I always get a good laugh out of the song.

You also co-founded and co-manage Solid Brass Records. How did that come about? What are your duties for the label? What is the label’s modus operandi?

Indeed, I’m really excited about Solid Brass. File 13, the label I’ve run for a long time has an amazing catalog and history, but running a label like I did alone was draining. I was burnt out. Jason Pearson and Chuck Pettry had started working on Solid Brass and had three releases in the works. They contacted me about a couple of release ideas and asked me some advice.

I started helping them out a little, and then they asked me to become the third partner. I teach at an art school now, but my job before that was working at Touch and Go Records. I worked at several record labels before that and also co-founded a music website called Epitonic. So I bring a level of record label experience to Solid Brass. I have relationships with artists that Jason and Chuck were interested in working with from Touch and Go, Epitonic, and File 13, so I have forged some partnerships with a number of artists, many of which we haven’t quite made public yet or are still in the works.

Those guys are very knowledgeable and skilled in their own ways and have similar music taste related to what we want to do with the label, so it’s a great operation so far. We debate decisions in a healthy way and each have carved out our own roles. We seem to be pretty functional this early in our history because this isn’t our first time running a business like it is for many new labels. We take it very seriously and are very organized, but at its core, we are music fans, using our skills sets and modest resources, to fight the very challenging fight of putting out music landscape.

Do you plan on any touring after the release of the album? 

We only have a couple of shows booked right now around the release of the album; that’s just how it worked out. We tried to book more but they were not panning out. A couple of bigger bands have said they want to take us on tour later this year, so that is the plan. It is really hard for us to tour by ourselves in the U.S. these days. The bands that are more serious about touring have the clubs pretty booked up because they had been waiting COVID out, and we totally respect that, but it makes it pretty hard for us to cobble together anything decent on our own and we do not have a booking agent. We looked at doing a Europe tour this summer, that is where we have the most success touring and overall, but that is particularly challenging right now, and we’ve heard a lot of nightmare stories from bands touring Europe over the past year, so we are going to wait that out until next year and hopefully go tour there then.

Why do you think the band has lasted this long? 

We walk into a practice space, chat for a few minutes, and then immediately start jamming what will pretty quickly become a new song. It’s a phenomenon that has been the case since we first started the band. Some days are better than others, but we can always write a song without much (or any) discussion, stop, and say, “Wow, that’s a weird song; that’s pretty cool. How did that just happen?”

We can also walk into the space after a few months of not seeing each other and play these songs without much problem three-piece band making that sort of complex music so effortlessly is a pretty special and unique telepathy and relationship. If it weren’t for the other logistics and adult responsibilities we could probably write 100 songs a year. And now we are just family and brothers, we have the constant text thread going 24-7, and it is just as much about life as it is about the band. Their families are my family and vice versa. That’s the most important part, and then we keep making music that we still find challenging and interesting, whether other folks care or not, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to stop doing it, it is engrained in our lives at this point.

Photo by David Babbitt

Buy Crime And Soda here.

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