A chorus of catharsis on We Should Have Been DJs' "Side A"
The Madison band plays on August 31 at the Terrace. (Image: We Should Have Been DJs is, from left to right, Mike Pellino, Drew Ferguson, Erik Fredine, and Alex Mitchard.)
For just about the whole time his band We Should Have Been DJs has existed, guitarist/vocalist Mike Pellino has juggled a lot of roles: crafting bright, versatile guitar leads for the rock-band version of Tippy and the recently broken-up Miyha (which is planning to release a couple of extra songs posthumously later this year), playing drums in the explosive duo Christian Dior, more guitar in Spaceship Parts, bass in Cowboy Winter, even playing some banjo for the folk project Vein Rays. Pellino is hardly the only person like this in Madison—it takes a lot of multi-project champs to keep a local music community running—but lately he's been able to finally slow down a bit and focus a bit more on WSHBDJs, which he often just calls "DJs" for brevity's sake. The band has recently released a new album, Side A, and plays on August 31 on the Memorial Union Terrace with Something To Do and opens for Joyce Manor on October 15 at the High Noon Saloon.
Pellino, drummer Erik Fredine, bassist/vocalist Drew Ferguson, and guitarist/vocalist Alex Mitchard set out on Side A to find a bit more focus, but without sacrificing the scrappy, often frantic rush of punk energy and earnest melody packed into DJs' previous work. They were also thinking about how to deepen the themes of the band's songwriting, which tends to be so personal that it cuts to the bone.
"DJs is kind of focused around loss and grief and death, but kind of taking that into different places, or how you react to it around other people," Pellino says. "I was going to shy away from that, but all my bandmates basically had similar experiences as I did when we started the band, of very close people in our family friends dying. They had supported me a lot when we started the band, and I wanted to write some new songs that would feel relatable to them as well."
In writing for Side A, Pellino tried to tackle those themes in a more head-on way: "A lot of our old records would be like, if someone died, maybe just me being pissed off at everyone for squandering life...[this is] more trying to deal with the actual grief," he says. The terse, direct lyrics here evoke death ("Grow"), the loss of beloved spaces and communities ("Red Hotel"), the loss of a sense of self ("Dead Dumb Eyes"). Every track also features layers of guest vocals over Pellino's, Ferguson's, and Mitchard's. The band has previously incorporated guest vocals here and there on previous records, but wanted to go more all-out here, wrapping the band's sound in the voices of some of its closest friends and biggest fans. Maggie Denman (Once A Month, No Question, Proud Parents, According To What), Spencer Bible (Tippy, Christian Dior, Sleep Now Forever), Alissa Taylor (Gods In The Chrysalis), Aaron Miller (also Gods In The Chrysalis), Calen Mulendorf (Real Boy, Dear Mr. Watterson, Parsing), and Isak Mladenoff (who played with Pellino and Ferguson in a band called Backstriker some 15 years ago) all joined the band to track their guest vocals one night in July, in something of a party atmosphere. Rather than supplying just the occasional harmony or call-and-response, the guest singers often join in on entire verses and choruses, encouraging multiple interpretations of the lyrics.
"Sometimes I feel like it's a lot to listen to just one person singing on an entire 30-minute record. It's kind of nice to break it up," Pellino says.
The song with the most guest vocal tracks on it is itself all about music scenes. "Red Hotel" mourns the 2006 closing of an all-ages venue called The Journey Music at the corner of Regent and Monroe Streets, and the title is a not-so-veiled reference to the building that stands there now, Hotel Red: "They killed the scene and built a hotel / What happened? What happened? / Another dead youth center / What happened? What happened?"
"That's where we played most of our shows back in the day," Pellino says of The Journey Music. "They used to have a pretty big national touring emo scene coming through. As a 15-year-old, to play with bands that I actually listened to in my own free time was pretty huge, and felt like a big missing part of Madison to me at a certain point." The song also follows the painful ups and downs of the local music community to the present, making another not-so-veiled reference to the closing of The Frequency last year. The song's many voices also offer a defiantly hopeful slogan, encouraging people to build what they want to see: "If you wait for it to happen / You'll wait for it forever."
The group vocals also bring about a desperate catharsis on the album's darkest songs: "No one sees us burning alive," goes one collectively screamed refrain on "Glow," which the band wrote around a guitar part Mitchard wrote. "It's a song that's very scatterbrained-seeming, but I think in a certain way it does all click together pretty well," Pellino says. "It's about how you can see yourself or try and make yourself this person, but people often won't see that, and often you won't either, and is it worth it and why can't we relate to each other or become what we want to become?""
The guitar interplay between Mitchard and Pellino in DJs also brings out a very different dimension for those of us who mostly know Pellino for his tasteful hooks in Miyha and Tippy. "For both of those bands I'm not the main writer, but I have to focus a lot more on the actual written notes of a part are and how it changes," Pellino says. DJs allows him to be a bit more in the moment, playing hefty chord-driven riffs while Mitchard supplies punchy, tangled melodic figures. On Side A's opening track, "How It Ends," this guitar pairing creates sweetness and volatility in equal measure.
There is a Side B to come, and as the band works on that record it's experimenting a bit more with odd time signatures, writing new material, and re-learning older songs to make for more varied setlists at its live shows.