Battleme

Battleme’s Matt Drenik on touring, Sons of Anarchy, and keeping an open mind.

Matt Drenik (Photo by Rebecca Steele)

Matt Drenik (Photo by Rebecca Steele)

If you didn’t catch Battleme’s electrifying set opening for The Toadies and Supersuckers in March at El Corazon (which many didn’t, due to long lines and an early start time), Thursday night you can make up for lost time. After a two week break from trekking across the country, Battleme kicks off a quick headlining West Coast run here in Seattle – refreshed, re-energized and ready to rock. Then they’re off again to the East Coast for a month of dates with Veruca Salt (yep, that Veruca Salt) throughout July. No sleep till Brooklyn, indeed.

The excellent Future Runs Magnetic, released March 11 on El Camino Records, has been steadily gaining attention, as have the songs Battleme’s Matt Drenik contributed to cable network FX’s biker drama series, Sons of Anarchy. (Esquire recently chose “Lights” for Best New Songs of the Week; Drenik was also featured in a recent issue of Magnet and penned an insightful point-of-view guest column there called “From the Desk of Battleme’s Matt Drenik”).

In a very brief moment of downtime back home in Portland, Drenik took a moment to chat about the highs and lows of incessant touring, how he got mixed up with a gang of outlaw bikers, and running into NBA stars on the road…but before we get to that, be warned: it won’t be long before catching Battleme in an intimate venue just isn’t in the cards anymore. With Future Runs Magnetic, they’re poised to make a great leap forward. Tickets for the June 5 Barboza show can be purchased HERE.

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Jessica P: Battleme’s done a couple legs on tour with The Toadies and Supersuckers recently, which kicked off around the time that Future Runs Magnetic was released, if I’m not mistaken. How’s it been crossing the country with all those guys this spring? Is this one of the most extensive tours you’ve been on with Battleme (or Lions, before that?)

Matt Drenik: It’s been so much fun and at the same time completely exhausting. I think this is the longest US stretch I’ve been on in quite some time. Lions toured pretty extensively throughout the US and there was a point where it felt nonstop, but that was years ago. So to get back in the van with 4 other people and zigzag across the country on a big rock tour took some getting used to. It’s tough chasing a bus, and really that’s what you’re doing when you’re the opening band. If there’s a 9 hour stretch between shows, the headliner in the bus leaves after the show and drives through the night, while we get a hotel room and wake up early and try to hustle just to make load in. But, let’s be honest. I’m out here playing music for a living. There is no better job in the world. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

JP: Going on the road requires a certain mindset and tenacity, especially after you’ve really roughed it a couple of times. Do you find it gets a little bit easier to get into “road dog” mode after you’ve done it a few times? Conditions improving and all that, as you move through your career? Hanging with Charles Barkley along the way?

Matt: Yeah, I think it gets easier the older you get because you learn what not to do on the road. You have to pace yourself. A lot of people attending these shows don’t really understand the reality of what we’re going through. I can’t tell you how many times someone came up to me asking about “our bus” and if we’re staying at the nicest hotel in town, etc. Then they go and buy you a shot. And I just want to tell them, “don’t buy me a shot. I’ve got plenty of booze backstage. But a record. I need that to survive.” Of course I’m in a much better position than I was 10 years ago. Back then I just wanted to get out and play and I didn’t care about getting paid or how many people were in the crowd. It was much more idealistic back then. Now it’s a job. And you learn what to do and not to do while doing that job. And one thing I can say is you always have to take advantage of the things around you when you’re on the road. For instance, Atlanta. We’re playing right down the street from the Clermont Lounge. Ever heard of it? If not, look it up. It’s legendary, a trashy strip club that feels nothing like a normal strip club. So of course we have to go there after the show. And of course I end up bellying up next to Charles Barkley who just happened to stroll in the bar. And of course I played the stripper’s jukebox that says “only dancers can touch this. NO ONE ELSE.” And of course I almost got thrown out. I love nights like that.

JP: Many people came to be acquainted with Battleme and Lions through Sons of Anarchy. How did that multi-song contribution and The Forest Rangers collaborations come about? It sounds like it not only provided some great exposure, but produced some musical connections you’ll probably have for years to come…and working with Katey Sagal must be a blast…

Matt: A guy named Ward Hake, who happened to be a musical supervisor at 20th Century Fox, came to a Lions show during SXSW. It was this sweaty, punk rock floor show we did every year at a small dive off South Congress called Trophy’s. He saw us and thought we’d be a good musical companion for a new show he had coming out on FX. “It’s about bikers and the culture around them.” So he sent us the pilot episode and we watched it and wrote some tunes for it. I had no idea the show would become such a hit. So as the seasons went on, they just kept calling me to do stuff. First it was with Lions and then solo attempts. Bob Thiele, SOA music supervisor, became a good friend of mine in the process and we started working on songs together that would eventually become Battleme w/ Forest Rangers songs. And now I’m in the process of working up new material with them for a record they have coming out. Honestly, I think I was just in the right place at the right time. Katey rules! I love working with her.

JP: The first Battleme EP and the debut album were written, played, recorded, and produced mostly by you. Not having a pre-conceived structure or parameters can be freeing artistically, especially when you’re potentially finding a whole new audience out there in the dark. At what point did you decide after holing up for a while on your own that you wanted to have a full band again? (You’ve assembled a top notch one…you guys are super-charged on stage together…)

Matt: Well, the first EP was thrown together with stuff I was doing in my apartment at the time. SOA called me up after “Burn This Town” was released and thought that this thing might have some legs and I might want to consider putting some other material up. Hence, the Big Score EP. Then I moved to Portland and holed up in a basement to write the first record. I still live in the same house, and the basement is much more fleshed out with a ton of gear, but there was something really pure about that first LP I did when I barely had anything. After the record came out, I was hesitant on touring because I got so burned out in Lions. Eventually though I had to go out and play some shows, so when I put together a live band, the songs started to take on more of an organic feel. I was into the idea of opening the structures up and extending the jams live. I don’t think there was actually a point when I decided to have a full band again. I think it just happened because my agent wanted me to tour. And I didn’t want to play live with a drum machine.

JP: Your music’s scope makes me think that you wear your heart on your sleeve, artistically speaking – meaning whether it’s twangy, psychedelic, or a funky keyboard groove, you can hear that you have a keen appreciation of all types of classics from different eras. There are multiple levels of influences churning around in there. In absorbing them, you’ve created something new & exciting all your own. Not an easy feat! What did you grow up listening to?

Matt: I was a little all over the place growing up. My dad was a big Temptations, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters fan. He still asks me to play Hank Ballard every time I see him. I guess I’m eventually going to fire out a version of “Work with Me Annie”. My older brothers (9 and 10 years older) were a bit on the opposite scope of each other. My one brother loved new wave, pop stuff that was happening in the 80’s (The The, New Order, Joe Jackson) and my other brother was more of a punk rock kid (Black Flag, White Zombie, Jesus Lizard). So a lot of these rumblings would creep into my 10 year old walls and soak up into my brain. My first CD was Nirvana’s Nevermind. My parents got it for me for Xmas. It was a big deal to me. They also got me a Bangles CD as well. But I loved Soundgarden, Janes, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins. That was the stuff that was happening when I was a kid. And then I found Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd in junior high and high school. And then hip hop like Bone Thugs and Easy E. I was into it all. I really hated the idea of clichés and allegiances. I loved the idea of loving the Grateful Dead and Bone Thugs. I loved the idea of Bob Dylan vs. Jane’s Addiction. It was all there for the taking.

JP: So you’re from Cincinnati originally? Then Austin, and now Portland? Austin and Portland are a bit similar, don’t you think?

Matt: They have similar mindsets. I think Austin is a bit more set up for disaster than Portland. You have to understand, Austin is still in Texas. And there’s this mindset in Texas that business is good, taxes are bad, guns are good, everything should be big and new, business is everything. So they give lots of benefits to big corporations going down there and crushing out the old with everything new. There are so many people moving there for different reasons that it feels like a different city every time I go back. And there’s not really any public transportation so they just have lots of new people with cars and traffic. Portland, like Seattle, is a bit on its own island. It has the ability to weed people out because of the weather. People look at Austin and go, “yeah, it’s sunny like California. Let’s go!” But you really have to commit to the rain to survive in the Pacific Northwest. And there’s something about that that I love. But don’t get me wrong. These are the two best cities in the country. I love both of them. I’m just happy about being in Portland now. It’s way better than Cincinnati.

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Battleme @ El Corazon, Seattle (March 27, 2014)

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Ah, the exquisite pain of standing in an achingly slow-moving line in the rain, knowing that the band you really came to see is already on stage because you can hear them starting up, less than 50 feet away from you, through the decrepit walls of El Corazon. Battleme opened for The Supersuckers and The Toadies last night in Seattle – kind of an odd bill, but not so much when you consider all three are descendants of a sort of scrappy rock n’ roll outlaw prototype; although radically different in delivery there’s a similar intent (feel good, rock out, the end) and varying degrees of South/Southwestern state connections (Battleme’s Matt Drenik, a Portland-by-way-of-Austin transplant, was showing his colors in a faded Bocephus tshirt).

Battleme’s opening set was just what I’d hoped for: raw and crackling with pent-up energy, lots of spitting and wild-eyed looks flying around, the kind that make you feel like you might be in trouble if you’re not paying attention in the first couple rows and get some eye contact. (A frontman that puts the fear of god in you with some piercing eye contact is never a bad thing…unless you’re standing still). Battleme’s jangly but solid songs are built on that mysterious combination of elements that many aim for but few honestly do well: songs that can make your heart swell or tears spring up because they just sound so crucial somehow. It’s warm weather music, made to crank up in the summertime.

Having said that, Battleme’s second album – Future Runs Magnetic – just came out March 11 on El Camino Records. It’s probably the only record I’ve played and played again obsessively from the get-go since Prince started mysteriously dropping new music with 3rdEyeGirl on his website last year. It’s fucking fantastic, and I can’t put it down.

Looks like I’ll have a chance to make up for my lost 15 minutes of set time when Battleme returns to Seattle June 5 as they’ll be headlining over at Barboza. Get tickets HERE. They’re gonna go fast.

Have I mentioned it’s been a minute since I blew all my fun money a week before payday at the merch booth, stocking up on super-soft tshirts and vinyl?