Despite a stream of honks, sirens and roars of unidentifiable origins muscling in on our conversation, the singer and bassist remains unfazed as he lays out the cinematic setting for the album in an accent that lets you know he’s no art brat transplant from Oberlin. He’s a townie, one who spent his volatile childhood moving all around the greater New York area, from Brooklyn to Westchester.
“Our previous record, Blowout, was the apocalyptic party,” Levine says. “This one is about how the world didn’t really end, and it’s just us walking around in some post-apocalyptic world. There are scattered pieces of paper all over the ground and burned out buildings everywhere. A hurricane came through and just blew away the place away. Technically, it’s not a sequel, but that’s how it feels.”
Ever since the quartet’s earliest releases in 2008, New York City — its buzzing street life, its singular sense of community, its brash garrulousness — has played a starring role in their music and videos (some of the most endearing in all of modern punk). Yet Kamikaze, recorded largely in San Diego with producer John Reis of Rocket From the Crypt fame, is a whole other beast. As Levine is quick to point out, “We definitely can’t get away from our roots, but thematically it’s not nearly as rooted in location.”
Kamikaze features the most meticulous arrangements and sophisticated poetry of the band’s career, and one gets the feeling that the “dark and heavy” post-apocalyptic world which Levine speaks of isn’t to be found out there, in the congested streets of New York, but rather lurking inside the band’s frazzled state of mind. Indeed, Kamikaze is pure inner reflection: a grandly orchestrated punk rock psychodrama drenched in angst and anxiety and shot through with nerve-shattering tensions between nihilism and hope, cynicism and earnestness, modernity and nostalgia.
Far and away the most fundamental of these myriad tensions is that between collective struggle and individual self-destruction. It’s something that goes directly to The So So Glos’ core identity. On the one hand, the foursome have always been staunch practitioners of punk rock as community building, from operating their own record label to starting up underground live venues. But on the other hand, they’re forever flirting with punk’s longtime mythologizing of debauched self-annihilation.
This really comes out on “Going Out Swingin’.” Over three rambunctiously pogoing minutes that sound like Black Rose-era Thin Lizzy getting jumped by a bunch of back alley toughs, Levine vacillates manically between the two poles: should he and the boys fight the good fight (even if it’s a losing proposition), or should they simply say fuck it and drown themselves in oceans of booze and violence?
“That is a big part of us,” he says. “There’s that collective struggle, but also the destructive path, and that’s at the heart of this record. There’s that optimism, but there’s also a sense of being defeated. You might go out swinging, but you’re also getting crushed. That’s why the album is called Kamikaze.”
The epic gestures of “Going Out Swingin’” extend to the rest of the album that, while recorded quickly (roughly nine days), sure doesn’t sound like it. It’s far and away The So So Glos’ most fully realized effort to date. Crooned, screamed, whispered and even rapped (sort of), the vocals are a carefully crafted tour de force. The music, meanwhile, is big, booming and packed with a dizzying number of details, including classical strings, pixelated percussion and hip-hop beats.
A handful of selections, including the rambunctious “A.D.D. Life” and exotic-flavored “Fool on the Street,” are so densely packed with sound they reach a kind of critical mass. It’s an utterly unique approach. After all, there aren’t a whole lot of bands out there who possess the compositional skills required to oh so slyly infuse rowdy street punk with art pop eccentricity.
“We threw a lot of stuff in there then carved the songs out of it,” Levine says. “The hardest thing to do is to be simple while keeping all those subtle changes. Writing a weird, intelligent pop song really is a challenge. I’m proud of it. I think we did some really good stuff. It’s complex but at the same time simple.”
The So So Glos on Tour
May 24: Denver, Hi Dive
May 26: Boise, ID, The Olympic
May 27: Portland, OR, Analog
May 28: Seattle, Funhouse
May 29: Vancouver, BC, Cobalt
May 31: Reno, NV, The Holland Project
Jun 1: San Francisco, Rickshaw
Jun 2: Los Angeles, The Smell
Jun 3: Santa Ana, CA, Constellation
Jun 4: San Diego, Soda Bar
Jun 5: Scottsdale, AZ, Pub Rock
Jun 7: Dallas, RBC Speakeasy
Jun 8: Austin, TX, Sidewinder
Jun 10: Jacksonville, FL, 1904 Music Hall
Jun 11: Tampa, FL, The Orpheum
Jun 12: Orlando, FL, Will’s Pub
Jun 14: Atlanta, GA, Masquerade
Jun 15: Carrboro, NC, Cat’s Cradle
Jun 16: Richmond, VA, Strange Matter
Jun 18: Toronto, ON, Smiling Buddha
Jun 19: Rochester, NY, The Bug Jar
Jun 21: Baltimore, MD, Ottobar
Jun 22: New Haven, CT, The Bar
Jun 23: Philadelphia, PA, PhilaMOCA
Jun 24: Jersey City, NJ, Monty Hall
Jun 25: Brooklyn, NY, Market Hotel
Jun 26: Allston, MA, Great Scott