The Gritty Gothic Punk of PAWNS: An Interview and Preview of “The Gallows” LP
I had the opportunity to catch Brooklyn’s PAWNS at San la Muerte III fest last year in San Antonio. The band’s electric performance was one of the highlights of the multi-day event, captivating and galvanizing the audience with a sonic assault that was equal parts classic anarcho-punk and gothic rock. (PAWNS are set to return to San la Muerte IV in August of this year.) The good folks at Mass Media Records are putting out Pawns’ debut LP The Gallows on July 18th, and the band already has a split cassette out with Chicago’s Cemetery on Occult Whispers. The new album was recorded in “a beautiful desanctified church in Hudson, NY,” bassist Jenna notes. “We recorded in the chapel and slept on the mezzanine” at Future-Past Studios.
In the music of Pawns you can hear the influence of bands from the darker side of the UK anarcho-punk spectrum – bands like Lack of Knowledge, Famous Imposters, and The Mob, an approach that is reflected in their imagery as well. Singer Gage’s baritone vocals lend the doomy music its gravitas; the accompanying lyrics drive home the themes of control and social dysfunction that preoccupy the band. “I don’t believe in free will,” Gage explains. “Not in the traditional sense anyway. So Pawns kind of sums up the sense of futility I struggle with daily.”
Below I asked Pawns about their upcoming album, how the band got together, and more.
Pawns were interviewed by Oliver in April, 2017.
When did Pawns start, and who was in the band when it started versus now? Who plays what instrument?
Gage: It’s hard to say exactly when we started; even though some of the songs were already written it took us a while to actually solidify a line up and get together for practice. I think our first show was early 2014 at The Silent Barn in Brooklyn. The line up has been the same since for the most part with an exchange of drummers here and there, but at the moment it is Noel on guitar, Jenna on bass and me on vocals.
Who chose the name “Pawns” and what’s the story behind it?
Gage: I chose the name before the band really even came together. It honestly just seemed like an obvious choice. I hadn’t heard of any notable bands with the name and it spoke to me. I’m probably speaking strictly for myself when I say this, but I don’t believe in free will. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. So Pawns kind of sums up the sense of futility I struggle with daily.
Jenna: When Gage came to me with the band name it spoke to my experience adhering to the most bizarre custody arrangement as an adolescent. I read it as commentary on divorce culture as a way of life while only later seeing the direct philosophical implications as I came to find Gage’s and my shared love of Sartre.
I could swear I first heard Pawns in 2012 or 2013, on Soundcloud, and it was a song that I no longer see on y’all’s Soundcloud page. It was called something like “Mechanical Age,” I think. (I am almost 100% certain the title had the word “age” in it, anyway.) I can’t find this now! What was this song and what was going on with the band around the time that song was recorded?
Gage: In August 2014 we released a song called “Technical Age,” but we collectively decided the song didn’t accurately portray the band we had become. We didn’t have a clear direction and we were still trying to find our sound. Since our last few releases and changes in drummers, writing styles, etc., we thought it felt right to put our first few recordings behind us and move on.
Darnit – I liked that song a lot! Anyway, I saw you all at San la Muerte 3 in San Antonio last year, and the performance was great. Everyone I knew raved about it as well. Do you all play out often, and was that the furthest you’ve traveled to play? What did you think of the fest?
Jenna: Thanks. We’re looking forward to playing again this year. The fest is historically well-curated and Robert puts up a bunch of the bands at his house which definitely makes for a good time. We play around NYC fairly regularly and have been on several tours but San Antonio is the farthest we’ve traveled so far. This summer we’ll be touring the West Coast and possibly going international shortly after.
If you were trying to describe your sound to someone who’d never heard you before what would you say you all sounded like? Do you think the terms “dark punk” or “deathrock” fit?
Gage: It’s so hard to say. The terms ”dark punk” or “deathrock” are so convoluted these days it seems like such an injustice to reduce a band’s sound to one of these genres. Usually when I try to describe Pawns I say it’s somewhere between anarcho and goth, but even that puts a bad taste in my mouth.
As far as lyrical content, what are some of the common themes in Pawns’ songs? Are they political, or do they tend to be more personal? What do you think are some of the more pressing issues that folks should care about now and are these reflected in Pawns’ lyrics in any way?
Gage: Most of my lyrics are sort of allegories that touch both on personal struggles as well as political or social issues. Sometimes they’re related and other times not so much. Like I mentioned before, I’m really fascinated with the concept of free will (or lack thereof) and I think you can see that in a lot of the lyrical content as well.
For that matter, what are your feelings on Trump’s election and the political direction the country has taken?
Jenna: Really cool that the electoral college put the star of a reality TV show (the villain no less) in power. As a woman, I’m disgusted by the whole thing. He is unapologetic about wanting to fuck his own daughter: “If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father . . .’” The absurdism is all too much. I’m not sure if I want to laugh or if I want to cry.
Gage: I think it’s safe to say we’re all pretty shook up by the political climate in the US right now. That being said, I wouldn’t blame the election or Trump’s climb to power as the main driving force behind the country’s rise of the far right, but rather a symptom of it. Neo Liberalism has been conning a vast majority of the left into thinking their version of this system is somehow more progressive than their republican counterparts, when really it’s just business as usual. The Obama administration deported more immigrants than all of the 20th century presidents combined, under the guise of liberalism (for example), so it’s not hard to imagine why Trump’s xenophobia and stricter border campaigns did so well in the polls. While I am horrified by the direction this country is taking politically, I think the light at the end of the tunnel is the growing acknowledgement that simply dismantling the Republican Party or the Trump administration isn’t enough to spark actual social and/or political change. The entire system that allowed his ascension to power is at question now more than ever.
Is there a unifying theme to the songs on the Gallows LP and, if so, what would you say it is?
Gage: I don’t think it would be fair to sum up the entire LP into one single underlying theme. There are definitely concepts we explore throughout the entire record (mental health, war, injustices of capitalism, etc.) but I’d like to think it is more complex than to simply boil it all down to one basic motif.
Something I’ve been meaning to ask – did you know anyone in the band Agnostic Pray? Is so, who were they and where did they go off to? They have a mysterious but good demo and they were also from New York…
Gage: I have actually never heard them. I moved to NYC late 2010 and wasn’t familiar with much music coming out of New York prior to that.
Jenna: I rarely go outside, so yeah, I’ve never heard of them.
Well, oops. Anyway, a band that you all sort of remind me of, sonically, is the Drunk Injuns. The deep vocals and mid-tempo punk – but I get the feeling there is a strong grounding of anarcho-punk in the approach you all have. What are some of the primary influences on the band? What are some members’ personal favorite bands?
Gage: I’ve actually never heard of the Drunk Injuns. We all have our personal influences of course but as far as our specific sound goes I would say early Crass Records era bands like Lack of Knowledge and Honey Bane are most responsible for shaping us as a band. I think Crisis, The Sisters of Mercy, and Bauhaus have an obvious impact as well.
I saw that a member of The Men produced your upcoming LP. How long did it take to record, and where was it recorded? Any other technical details about the LP you think stands out or that potential listeners ought to know?
Jenna: We recorded The Gallows over the course of 3 days at Future-Past Studios — a beautiful desanctified church in Hudson, NY. We recorded in the chapel and slept on the mezzanine.
Ben is brilliant and I love working with him because I trust him entirely. He recorded and engineered the album. He is responsible for my tone. I never would have run my bass through a Hiwatt, but it has really grown on me and I think it was a smart move. He is responsible for the thoughtful guitar overdubs and filled in spectral gaps with a Voyager. He is the reason you can hear the room on the record — he used 30-foot-tall drum overheads.
Gage: Ben Greenberg is a former member of The Men but to my knowledge hasn’t been active with them in years. His main project now is Uniform and they’re great. They just put out an LP on Sacred Bones January of this year and we couldn’t recommend it more.
How do you feel about what, a few years back, was seen as a new deathrock trend, or “dark punk” or even “g-beat” as some called it – members of ex-d-beat bands turning to gothic rock, like the Estranged or Deathcharge or Dekoder…. Do you think Pawns is a part of that cultural movement, is it anything new under the sun, and where do you see Pawns going musically in the future?
Gage: I love all of those bands and while I see major differences in our sound compared to theirs from a more historical context I think it’s fair to say we might be a component of that movement. I guess it’s not really for us to decide though. Musically I feel like with this LP we finally found our niche in the realm of modern post-punk and I would I would like to see where we would go from here.
A favorite question I like to ask all bands: If you were consigned to a desert island and had some magical way to take 5, and only 5, records with you for the rest of your life, what 5 records would those be, and why?
Jenna: (1) The Birthday Party – “Mutiny/The Bad Seed” (2) Mississippi Records – “V/A – House of Broken Hearts pt. 2” (3) Einstürzende Neubauten – “Halber Mench” (4) Rudolf Serkin – “Beethoven: Sonatas for Piano No. 14, 8, & 23” (5) Townes Van Zandt – “Live at the Old Quarter”
Gage: Crass – Penis Envy; Bjork – Medulla; Flux of Pink Indians – Strive to Survive; Musta Paraati – Peilitalossa; William Onyebore – Who is William Onyebore.
What are some upcoming releases and where can folks go to find out more about these or purchase them?
Jenna: Our full-length is scheduled to come out July 18th on Mass Media Records. It’s available for preorder via their Big Cartel.
Thanks so much, guys! Look forward to seeing you in August at San la Muerte 4!
Gage: Thanks so much. Your first beer at SLM is on us.
Pawns have a Soundcloud page here.
Pawns’ The Gallows LP can be preordered at Mass Media’s page here.