Interview: Sean Monaghan of Hit Bargain Talks ‘A DOG A DEER A SEAL’

Upon hearing the latest full-length from Hit Bargain, A DOG A DEER A SEAL (out now on Get Better Records), what comes across is unbridled intensity. Throughout the 10-song record, there’s a palpable immediacy, urgency, and uneasiness that really resonates. The four-piece queer band, comprised of vocalist Nora Singh, bassist Sean Monaghan (who also plays in Cold Beat), guitarist Mike Barron, and drummer Anton Hochheim (also of Beach Fossils) have really fashioned an amazingly powerful and extremely timely album, which is interesting since they had written and recorded it in 2019 and 2020. Read on to find out about the band’s journey and the album.

I want to hear your thoughts about the new record and how it came about. But the first thing that comes across, I love the urgency and immediacy. It’s a cool, frantic feel. Really intense.

Yeah. We wrote these songs pre-pandemic and recorded them before the pandemic as well. We kind of took a long time putting them together, and I think because it was created over such a long period of time, we didn’t realize how intense it was. Or, at least for me, until we heard the mastered recordings, I was like, “Wait a second. Oh my gosh, this is really intense.” It even surprised me, especially because we recorded pre-pandemic, and then the pandemic hit, and we kinda didn’t really know what was going to happen. (Nora) moved to Ohio. We just slowly mixed it, and then a year after that, or maybe a year-and-a-half after that, we mastered it. The record just kept disappearing and then showing up again. But by the time we got the mastered recordings I was surprised. (…) It kinda grips you and keeps hold of you throughout the whole record, which I really like.

That’s such a good way to put it because it’s true.

It’s interesting. A lot of those songs, like “Immaculate Vaxxer,” took on a new meaning afterwards. It was written with a different context. But after the pandemic, vaccines really took on a different meaning culturally. I think it’s interesting how it’s become more relevant.

Yeah, that was so weird because when I first heard it I was like, OK. But then learning that you had written it before the whole pandemic and vaccinaton debate. I didn’t know how to take it also because I was thinking of abortion…

That song in particular kind of touches on bodily autonomy in a few different ways, in terms of motherhood, bearing a child, or abortion, are you just a host to a child or do you have autonomy over your own body? Or having chronic illness. Are you a host? Are you living with this illness and just hosting it? Or with vaccines, too, what kind of choices do we get to make with our own bodies. So, it touches on so many different sides.

Like you said, so many different things, it’s almost like a premonition. And then, “My body is not my own/It’s a host.” That hit me hard. And then I just think of how I don’t know if this makes sense, but when people say, “My body my choice” about reproductive decisions, motherhood. Then the anti-vaxxers took it and usurped that term, you know what I mean?

Exactly. And it’s funny because a lot of the same people will take opposite stances for either vaccines or abortions. Some of the same people who are like, “It’s my choice, I’m not going to get a vaccine,” are the same people that are like, “You don’t have a choice; you have to give birth to this child.” And then on the other side, some people that are pro-choice may also be like, “You have to get vaccinated.” It’s interesting. It’s so funny how art and music can—You said it’s kind of like a premonition. Sometimes it can foresee things and talk about them before they really become obvious in the culture. And that just happens by accident; it’s not like people are trying to do it, but it is an interesting thing. I definitely think with this Hit Bargain record there were a few ways in which the content of our music tends to subconsciously or otherwise maybe by chance happen to touch on all these things that are really relevant, post-pandemic. But also a lot of these things have been issues for a long time as well and have resurfaced.

Even just the second song, “Hair Trigger.” That one’s really powerful because the repetition of “thoughts and prayers.” Oh my god. That’s hard-hitting.

Yeah. That line in particular, when people say, “Thoughts and prayers,” it’s supposed to be kind of a complacent sign of care. But the way it’s delivered actually becomes a really cruel thing to say.

Yeah, like, “Sorry, can’t do anything about it…”

Yeah, “thoughts and prayers.” It’s actually a really cruel thing to say to someone when there actually is something we can do.

One thing about making the record again, what did take this long to put it out then?

We recorded it in, I think, February of 2020, and then pandemic hit, the world shut down, our friend Danny that recorded and mixed the record, moved away. (Nora) moved to Ohio. So, it just kind of took time. And after it got mastered, we kind of just sent it to friends. All of us got really excited about it. We were like, “Holy shit. This is really cool. We wanna put this record out.” I got really invigorated by it. And I think the whole band got excited about the final product and wanted to put it out. So we just shared it around, and then Alex (Lichtenauer) from Get Better Records heard it and really liked it.

Alex was like, “I wanna put out your record,” so that was a chance meeting. Alex admitted later, “We usually don’t really even listen to records that we get blindly sent to us.” But they were just like, “We heard this one and really wanted to work with you guys,” so Alex hit us up and said, “Let’s put this out.” So, it’s been really fun, and we really wanted to put it out on vinyl instead of just digitally or on CD or on tape. We worked out a deal where you can get it on vinyl, which is really cool. I designed—with the band, we all collaboratively worked together on the final artwork for the record. I had a big part of putting it together.

What about the cover photo?!

Yeah, so we just wanted something that matched the energy of the record. The title track of the record is A DOG A DEER A SEAL, and I was trying to work with something that was related to that imagery and that title. And I was kind of working with a bunch of AI image generators honestly, and then I just had this vision of a really crazed poodle that looked scary. It was just this maniacal moment of a dog barking out of control. I think also something like a poodle can be really nice or look really pretty but can act really cruel. And I liked that element too.

So, you’re also in Cold Beat.

Yeah, I play guitar and keyboards and do songwriting. In Cold Beat, it’s a very recording-based project. We write our music as we record it. Half the band is based in the San Francisco Bay area; half the band is in L.A., so we write a lot of music by sending recordings back and forth. And then when we play shows, we’ll meet up and rehearse our songs. But we’re pretty picky about—We like our shows to be special, so our last show we played was in January at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, which is this historic, large cathedral. And it was really gorgeous and so echo-y. We got to do a light show. It was really, really fun.

Hit Bargain is not like that. We write all our songs in-person, and we did the recording over a few days at a studio. I was thinking about why we sound so different—I’m not saying no one does it, but I think more and more bands these days are doing home recordings or are solo projects where one person is playing every single instrument. And it either has a lo-fi quality, which is cool and punk, or it has this other quality too, where it feels like a one-person band. It’s hard to put your finger on, but you can kind of feel the difference when something’s played live by a band versus something that’s been layered and layered and layered on tracks. That’s something about the Hit Bargain record that stands out to me is that it’s a live band.

So then also what about the writing process. Does Nora write the lyrics or hear the music first and then write?

Nora writes all the lyrics kind of as we’re doing the music. Ana’s been back and forth between Ohio and L.A., so a lot of the time while we were writing the record, Nora was living in Ohio and would come to L.A. for a couple weeks at a time to play some shows or record music, and in between that, Anton, the drummer, who also plays drums in Beach Fossils, and Mike, the guitarist and I, we would meet weekly and do these long songwriting sessions together where we’d work out all these ideas, and something funny that happened with this record is, we wanted it to sound darker.

So, we’d play these parts over and over again until we found the right feeling. And a lot of times, the way we’d start writing the songs was, Mike would have a riff. He’d be like, “I have this riff that sounds cool and maybe we could build something off of it.” So, we’d play it over and over again very repetitiously until we found something we liked, and we’d do it again. We’d break it down, add more things, take some things away. But what would usually happen was we’d end up with a song where we removed the original part that we started with so it would transform into something completely different than the guitar part we started out with. It was interesting. We really did a lot of deconstructing of the songs, so they sounded really harsh and bleak or so that the mood was right.

So, you did it differently than your past material with the band.

Yeah. I do think it sounds different. A lot of our older music is more straightforward, a little bit brighter, and this stuff has more intensity but a darker energy.

Like you said with Cold Beat, you play guitar and keyboards, but here, bass. One thing that strikes me is the bass is so in the forefront; I love it. You really hear it, you know?

Yeah, it’s funny, the way we wrote the songs, we didn’t really think about it until we went in to record the songs with Dan Destiny. He was like, “Do you want this to feel more like a guitar than a bass?” We were like, “I guess so.” We want it to fit in a similar aural space as a guitar.

Which instrument did you pick up first when you were younger?

Drums.

Ooh. OK.

I actually love to play the drums. I think they’re such a powerful part. The bass is actually the last rock instrument I played. I started on drums, and then I started playing guitar in bands. Nora was a friend of mine in New York; we used to work together. And then when I moved to L.A., Nora was one of the first people to hit me up to ask me to play music. Hit Bargain needed a bassist. Their previous bassist was this guy Mikey Stoltz who is kind of connected with Cold Beat too. He made videos for Cold Beat and made video productions for the Cold Beat shows at the Grace Cathedral. He made these optical projections, and he made some art we used for our last album artwork, War Garden. So it’s kind of all these interesting connections. It’s kind of this wider family network of artists and punks. (Laughs)

So, you knew each other. What about Anton and Mike? Anton’s still in Beach Fossils?

Yeah, he’s on tour right now. He’s been playing drums in Beach Fossils for the last four years? Five years? He started as a touring drummer, and since he joined, he’s been on their recordings too. They’ve been doing some big tours lately. We’re proud of him. (Laughter)

So how did they meet?

Mike and Anton also lived in New York. They met in college, and they were in math rock/noisy bands together. Mike’s from Chicago. He grew up listening to that Chicago noisy rock/punk stuff, kind of like Touch and Go Records. That’s kind of his world. He plays guitar with his own alternate tuning that he invented, and he’s been using that same guitar style for a long time, and he’s developed this really unique style that is born out of that invention. I think Nora and Mike played in a band together in LA. They all joined up and started Hit Bargain with Mikey Stolz. And then I joined after Mikey left the band. And it’s been this lineup since 2016.

How much touring has the band done?

We’ve been on tour in California and Mexico, in Baja mostly. A small local tour. We did a national tour right when Trump got elected. It was kind of crazy. I was on a flight to New York on Election Day. For no reason in particular, everyone was just expecting Hillary to win. It’s a given for whatever reason. I remember being on the plane and watching them calculate and tallying the votes, and it wasn’t going that way, and it was like, “That’s weird.”

They keep waiting to announce it, and we got to New York, and we had band practice. We were rehearsing for a few hours, and we got out of rehearsal and went to the bar around the corner, and it was like 10 p.m., and they still hadn’t called it. And people were—The mood was so weird and uneasy. You could tell people were like, “What the fuck’s going on?!” That whole tour, we went to Philly, we went to D.C., we went to Baltimore, in all those cities immediately after Election Day, it was protests, and so it was in between shows people were going to protests. And I think also going to a punk show was this cathartic release. It heightened the energy for sure. (Talking politics…) You’ve heard the whole record?

Yeah.

It’s interesting we only have these two singles out right now. “Degree Decree” and “Immaculate Vaxxer.” “Degree Decree” is such a fast punk song and “Immaculate Vaxxer” is this heavier, brutal song that’s super intense. But then the actual record goes to so many different places.

No, it’s true. I love the fast, hard punk but a different-sounding one I love is “Cloud Cover.”

Yeah, it’s kind of like a Krautrock song. That one and a couple other songs started with basslines. That one I was just riffing on that bassline, “Let’s just make a jam off of this. Let’s make it really straightforward.” And it ended up becoming—the interaction between the guitar parts and the bass parts and the straightforward drums, all the rhythms kind of get tangled into each other. And then on top of that we have [Nora’s] lyrics and the screaming and the intensity and the release.

Yeah, and even her vocals are like, I was trying to think what it reminded me of…

The calm part or the intense part?

The calm part. I’m like, Kim Gordon?

Ohhhh. Yeah, it does kind of have this—I can see Kim Gordon. It has this monotone kind of disaffected mood during the verse, but then it builds intensity. Yeah, I can hear that.

Another one I love is “Worst.”

“Worst” is really fun, and my bandmates hated it at first. [Laughter] This is just a funny thing because we all love the song now. I brought the baseline and was like, “Let’s do something with this baseline,” and then it ended up having this really weird time signature that everyone was struggling with. But I liked how frustrating and drunk-feeling it felt. I think in the end it got to a really cool place. And then with the saxophones. On the actual vinyl, there’s the A-side and the B-side, and the saxophone only exists on the B-side, so it’s no sax side and then the sax side on the B-side.

You have used saxophones before. It’s so interesting. It adds that extra layer; it’s cool.

I think it works well with the no-wave/post-punk vibe of that specific song. And then we use it in a different way on “True Crime,” which has this pulpy, noir, kind of campy vibe. So, the saxophone on that song has this really smooth, romantic feeling almost. It’s kind of sarcastic, too.

And on “Worst” it adds to the frantic feel.

Oh, 100%. It takes the chaos through the roof at the end.

Was it hard to choose which songs to have out first?

Oh yeah. I really wanted “Pressure” to be a single, and I think the whole band thought “Pressure” could be a good single. It didn’t end up being that way. Our final single is going to be “A DOG A DEER A SEAL,” which is a dark and crazy song. It’s another anomalous song on the album. I think it really works as the album closer. But I think “Pressure” has pop song potential. To me, when we wrote it because of the contrast between the chugging chords and the verses versus the big, expansive choruses, it kind of sounded like Garbage to me. That was a reference when we were still writing the song, like, “Let’s play the Garbage one.” (Laughter) So, hopefully Shirley Manson gets to hear it.

Oh my god. Amazing. (Laughs) But like you mention, closing with that one. It kind of leaves you with an uneasy feel.

Yeah, it’s a very much To Be Continued…

So when I first got the download and looked at the name of the album, A DOG A DEER A SEAL, like, what does that mean? And then learning how there’s different meanings…

Yeah, there’s different meanings to it. It literally comes from the recipe for Chinese Three Penis wine.

But, I mean, is that real?

That is real. I think it’s real. That’s what Nora says. And then something we always were like, “This is so bizarre.” It almost becomes bizarre and Dadaist where we bring in these elements that are kind of random and put them together, and it creates this tension between finding intense meaning in certain things and then also finding complete meaningless in other things. Or having very serious subject matter but also having a counterpoint of humor.

In the band, we also try to toe the line where we like to have a sense of humor and have fun and be silly in our live shows and in our music, but also at the same time want to deliver this very serious and intense emotional experience. I think there’s something interesting in doing both and experiencing both. We just played a show with Les Savy Fav earlier this month and they’re also this very performative band that does these crazy ludicrous things onstage. It seems ridiculous but the effect it has is a very real cathartic feeling. You can be totally insane and silly but at the same time touch this nerve that’s very human.

Do you have touring plans in the works? I know it’s hard because people are in different places… Any shows you can divulge?

We actually are planning a show for January 20 in Los Angeles.

I was wondering what got you into punk/hardcore or just music in general in the first place?

Growing up, I definitely was interested in rock music. I went to Catholic school, and I felt like rock music was bad but I was attracted to it as a very young child. I would see a Nirvana music video, and I’d be like, I’m gonna get in trouble for watching this, but I’m obsessed with it. And then when I was a teenager, I started going to Gilman in the Bay Area and I’d see local punk shows there.

And I just got into the punk scene in San Francisco, and in particular being a young, gay teen, it was really inspiring for me going to punk shows and see other gay people there. I was in the closet, but I’d see two guys dancing or making out at a punk show and that was inspiring for me. Or I’d go to a Gravy Train show and I’d be like, this is so cool. This is so wide open and chaotic and cool. And there were just all these different things about punk rock and the whole DIY scene around it that was inspiring as a young gay person.

At home did you have any music? Did your parents play anything?

I grew up in a musical family, but I grew up listening to country music with my dad.

My dad was always big into country music. Now I appreciate it more than when I was little.

I do too. The main thing I do outside of playing music is, I do queer line dancing and two-stepping parties. It’s called Stud Country. So, I do that twice a week in L.A., once a week in San Francisco. Then we go to New York every month or so. That’s kind of my life. It’s come full circle. I started re-listening to a lot of the country music I listened to as a kid maybe 10 years ago and then I got into it. Especially in the early ’90s, a lot of the country music production and songwriting either was literally from ‘80s singers/songwriters like Lucinda Williams or Nanci Griffith. But the production also sounded kind of like ‘80s college rock, indie rock. It sounded like it was in a small room, and it has this warmth to it. And the riffs were even similar in some ways. I think that overlap and that aesthetic connection I can see. I don’t know if it’s intentional. I can experience it. That was really interesting to me. Now I listen to a lot of contemporary country music too. I just love it all.

(With Hit Bargain), how do you describe yourselves?

Hit Bargain, well, one thing we’re saying lately is that we’re adult punk. (Laughs) When people ask, “What’s your band like,” I’m like, “Well, it’s an adult punk band.” Maybe it’s less about the style but more about how we function. Yeah, we’re not going on house punk tours and sleeping on the floor anymore. We’re adults, and we’re writing our songs and we’re putting out our record. But also we have all this history, and we have all this experience, and we have years of songwriting to be like let me pull from this feeling I have, let me pull from this band I’ve known for a long time. I feel like there’s something about us that’s not necessarily on-trend right now. It doesn’t feel like it’s “cool.” It feels like it’s just really honest and energetic. There’s progressive elements to some of the songs, where they go to a lot of different places. Dark, intense, noisy punk.

Would you say post punk at all?

I think calling something post-punk is calling something like post modern. That just basically means it’s wide open. I do think it’s post punk and there are certain songs that I think are stylistically post punk; maybe “Worst” or “Degree Decree” have some of those elements. And I think maybe even “Cloud Cover” because it’s Krautrock-influenced. But I think post punk is kind of a meaningless term. (Laughter])

Because I think of that—What would you call it, late-70s, that jagged Birthday Party sound.

Yeah. Ooh. I love that stuff. I love that but I also feel there’s an element to our music that feels very ‘80s and ‘90s hardcore, where it gets into this—especially the parts that feel more mathy. But I guess there are older examples of that. But there’s also something about the production of the record that feels very—like when I first heard it, this is my emotional reaction to it—my first reaction was, “This sounds like fuckin’ Green Day. This sounds like Dookie,” because it just sounds like a really big, well-produced rock record to me. Which is so unique to me for any record that I’ve made, which usually sounds very DIY. So, I feel like that’s an interesting element.

Yeah, everything about it is hard-hitting.

It definitely helps with that. It’s interesting. A lot of bands, especially if they have a lo-fi, DIY sound on their recordings which sounds great and when they play live it’s always a crazy different experience because you’re actually there with the real instruments, which can be a good thing. I think that can be really fun. But I think this kind of matches our live energy more. It feels how I feel when I play the music.

A DOG A DEER A SEAL is available now from Get Better Records. Follow Hit Bargain on Facebook and Instagram for future updates.

Photo courtesy of Matt Allen

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