Teenage Bottlerocket’s Miguel Chen talks life after the pandemic, internet drama vs. the real world, and what’s in store with ‘Sick Sesh!’

TEENAGE BOTTLEROCKET: Kody Templeman (from left), Ray Carlisle, Darren Chewka, and Miguel Chen. Photo courtesy Fat Wreck Chords.

Teenage Bottlerocket is on the road again. Originally hailing from Laramie, Wyoming, the rapid-fire pop punk outfit is on the heels of releasing a new single, titled “Ghost Story.” Bass player Miguel Chen took a few minutes between gigs to talk about playing live punk rock shows as the pandemic winds down, the music’s power to unite people, and what’s in store with the group’s next record, Sick Sesh! (out August 27 via Fat Wreck Chords).

Were you nervous, or feeling anxiety about taking Teenage Bottlerocket out on the road while the pandemic is still winding down?

Absolutely, we felt nervous all around. Our first concern was how do we get back out there and do it in a safe way? And how do we do it without a lot of backlash? We worked with a lot of promoters trying to figure it out. Once that started to settle into place a second wave of anxiety came with this one particular show where we were giving a … let’s call it a discount. Essentially, tickets for the show were $1,000, but if you showed your vaccination card it was like $20.

Talk about a conversation starter!

Yeah, it was a crazy promotional thing, but it blew up. The next thing you know we’re being interviewed by CNN about it. We’re on the front page of Apple News, all of this crazy stuff. People just saw the headlines: “Teenage Bottlerocket,” “No Vax Tax.” That angered a lot of people. So we went on the news and tried to explain that it’s just this one show. There are many other shows doing different things. So yeah, definitely anxiety from all angles.

Honestly, though, this has probably been the smoothest running tour we’ve ever had. Turns out it was all imaginary stress and drama, or internet stuff that seemed so real. But when you get out into the real world, it’s just not there. 

That’s interesting to process. The internet has been everybody’s window to the world for like a year and a half. People have been stuck at home, staring at their phones and computers. All of the sudden “no vax tax” becomes the frontline.

That was just that one promoter’s idea. Obviously it worked well, that show sold out super fast, and everybody there was really happy. For us, if that’s how they want to put on a safe show, we’re all about it. But it turned into a whole big thing. 

Does it feel like audiences have been bottled up and are ready to just go nuts like never before?

A thousand percent, yes. And funny enough, the last real tour we did was a lot of these same cities. Lots of shows in Florida just before the pandemic shut everything down. We played Atlanta on that tour. And here we are, passing back through Florida, heading for Atlanta. For a lot of people we were the last show they saw before everything shut down. Now we’re the first show they’re seeing as everything opens up. 

Have you had epiphanes or realizations along the way about the dynamics or the value of getting out on stage and playing live punk rock shows again? 

Yeah, and it all connects back to what we were just talking about with the internet. There’s this space that exists within music, and particularly surrounding live music. On some level it reminds us that we’re not all as different as we think we are. We’re all connected in some really meaningful ways. And I think that this whole thing where everyone has existed on the internet for the last year and a half has deepened some divides and made people lose that common ground. I have the feeling that getting back to live music and live shows is going to heal that aspect, and help people realize that we’re all the same on some level. 

Have you noticed your audiences becoming more diverse?

We had one particular show in Tallahassee where we all noticed that the crowd was really young. Our band exists in a weird space between the old and the new. So we played this really awesome place in Tallahassee called the Bark; it’s  a really Queer-friendly, LGBTQ-friendly, and diverse collective, where we all recognized that we have these types of fans. We are lucky in that we didn’t get stuck with just like the punks who are stuck in the ‘90s. We’ve been embraced by the 2000s punks too! We talked with this one fan at that show—I’ve actually had this conversation two times this year—where they said, “I’ve been listening to you since I was nine or 10 years old because you’re my parents’ favorite band.” That’s really fun, but the younger generation will always inherently bring a bit more diversity, and hopefully that continues forever.

You have a new album, Sick Sesh!, out in August. Are these songs a product of how the band spent its time during quarantine, or were they in the works before everything went crazy?

We definitely had plans to do a record before everything went nuts. Our system has always been to do a record every two years. The plan was always to go into the studio late 2020 and release a record in 2021. It just kept getting shifted back because of all his stuff. Under the original timeline the record would already be out. But you can’t release a record if you can’t tour around it. So we sat on this thing for quite a while. Andrew and Jason at the Blasting Room remixed and remastered it quite a few times because I think they were just like us, bored without the usual workload. 

I’ve always thought of Teenage Bottlerocket as a band that’s super tight, super concise, shotgun blast-style songwriting. …  Point being there’s never anything in the way of the song. With so much time to work in the studio, did that affect the record? 

I think all of the extra time and effort went into stripping it down or making it a little more raw. A lot of bands, given that much time in post-production, might’ve gone the opposite direction: give it more polish, make it more radio friendly. Our approach was, “This sounds too clean. Tone back the production a little.”

I have found that the more time you spend stripping something down, the more you realize that, oftentimes, things that feel essential aren’t essential at all. As a journalist I’m always under pressure to cut, cut, cut. It’s a painful process, but once you have time to reflect you can see that there was too much in the way of what you’re trying to say.  

Do you watch Top Chef? I think about that a lot. The chefs who always kick ass are the ones who know how to edit themselves—take ingredients off the plate and present something simple, and do it well. This is Top Chef Bottlerocket. [laughs]

There is a new single out, called “Ghost Story.” Much of the press points out that you wrote the lyrics. Does the group have one principal songwriter, or is it generally a group effort?

Generally Ray writes the songs that he sings and Kody writes the song that he sings. Brandon would write a song once in a while. Over the last few years—since we lost Brandon—I’ve tried to step up a little more and bring songs to the table. I’ve got three on this record: One called “The Squirrel” and another called “Moving On.” Kody sings on one of them. Ray sings on two of them.

Is the band rolling out a lot of new songs on this tour?

We’re doing “Ghost Story” every night because, obviously, it was sort of intentional to release that song before going on tour, and people already seem to know it, which is a great feeling. We’re trying to play one other new song each night, which is fun for us. So many of the songs we’ve been playing for a long time. It’s nice to play new songs that are fresh and that we’re excited about. But the crowd wants to hear “Skate Or Die” or “Don’t Want To Go,” or “Radio,” things like that. So as much as part of me would love to do a show where it’s only the new record, you just can’t do that. 

How many songs do you power through each night?

I’d say we probably play 25 songs each night.

That’s a workout!

Yeah, but it’s our only workout, so we need this! 

While we’re talking about songs, when I hear “I Want To Be A Dog,” I am instantly thinking about Iggy Pop’s song, “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” These songs are polar opposites of each other, but was there intentional mirroring going on there? 

Tony wrote that song, and I’m sure there is. We’re all Iggy Pop guys. One time we played Riot Fest with Iggy Pop, and me and Ray saw him backstage. I was frozen—scared to do anything. Ray just puts his fist up in the air, and says, “Fuck yeah, Iggy!” And he gave us a fist bump back. We were both so pumped after that. 

But, yeah, I’m sure there’s a loose connection there. Obviously we tip our hats to our influences. You know “In The Basement,” back on “Warning Device,” is obviously like a Ramones song.

While I’m thinking about “I Want To Be A Dog,” I remember we filmed it and got the edit back, and there’s all these dogs taking a shit. We thought, “There is no way our publicist will let this fly. She’s going to shoot it down, make us edit it. So we hit the send button, and nervously waited for her reply.  She just wrote back, “I love it!” And that was it. The video was released. Then Erin, one of the owners of Fat Wreck Chords wrote, “I really could have done without all of the dog poop, guys.” So we’re all like, “Sorry …” [laughs].

That’s funny, but the more I’ve watched that video the less jarring it becomes. Plus anyone who owns a dog knows that’s what dogs do at the dog park. 

Yeah, you get desensitized to it pretty quickly. [laughs]

Teenage Bottlerocket and their Fat Wreck Chords labelmates MakeWar join Atlanta’s Breaux for an evening of outdoor music on the loading dock at Boggs Social & Supply. Thursday, July 1. $17 (adv). $20 (day of show). 7 p.m. (doors). 1310 White Street SW.

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We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk rock, Ronald Reagan, and the real culture war of 1980s America

The specter of nuclear annihilation that hung over the Reagan era feels somewhat quaint now, in light of just how much President Trump’s draconian administration, the global pandemic, and the oppressive grind of social media have twisted up the American psyche circa 2020. Still, the 1980s were a fertile time for punk rock’s cultural growth on American soil.

In We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America, author and Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University Kevin Mattson delves into the golden era of hardcore, punk and DIY culture blooming in the shadow of the Gipper. Countering the oppressive forces of a conservative White House regime, a community bound by the music of groups such as the Dead Kennedys, the Dils, Minor Threat, the Avengers, Hüsker Dü, Bad Brains, Black Flag, and more was compelled to enact empowering social change that still resonates around the planet.

On Tuesday, September 29, Mattson will join GSU history professor and author John McMillian (Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, Beatles vs. Stones) and yours truly, music writer and editor Chad Radford, to discuss the book, the music, and more.

Tues., Sept. 29. 7 p.m. It’s free to sign in for our Zoom conversation. Head over to www.acappellabooks.com for details.