The Bronx: A Long Strange Trip
The Bronx have little to prove to anyone, including themselves. On the eve of their East Coast record debut, an event five years in the making, they appear as cool as if they were playing to a small crowd of friends—which, in many ways, they are. The Bowery Electric is an intimate, underground venue packed to the gills on a frigid February night, a situation terrifically familiar for a band as comfortable in front of a crowd of 20 as in front of a horde of thousands. Minutes before taking the stage and exploding into a frenzy of guttural punk rock hooks and blood-pumping breakdowns, the band’s lead vocalist, Matt Caughthran, is reclined on a pock-marked vinyl couch with his hat pulled low and an anticipatory grin on his face, ready to preach the good word to the growing masses only a few feet away. While his bandmates—guitarists Joby J. Ford and Ken Horne, bass guitarist Brad Magers, and drummer Jorma Vik—give him some time in this calm before the storm, Caughthran recalls the ups and downs of an American punk rock band that’s still as visceral as they are prolific—and as crude and painfully honest as ever.
Jorma Vik (Drummer)
INKED: What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between now and the last record release tour?
MATT CAUGHTHRAN: I think music is in a cool place right now—people are super relaxed and they want to go crazy, and they want to go off. They want the artists and musicians they like to take chances. There’s a lot of up-and-coming bands, garage bands, punk bands, hardcore bands, and music is just in a really cool spot. There’s a very strong underground right now, which is just awesome. I think people understand pretty well by now that we just want to do our own thing and have fun. What I always loved about punk rock is that you didn’t have to pre- tend; you didn’t have to be someone else. You didn’t have to wear KISS makeup or be some superstud—it was everyone’s thing. If you had something to be pissed off about, it was like, “Come on in.” This band comes from an honest place. I think people get that about us, and that’s why the shows are the way they are. Posers get sniffed out pretty quick.
Do you prefer performing in a club or a larger venue? We feel more comfortable in clubs, always have. I think, in a lot of ways, that’s the way that it should be. The riverboat shows we did on the Hudson are the same way. They’re so much fun, and that’s the point: We’re all in this together. We’re not a huge band, we don’t take for granted the fact that we get to travel around and play music for a living. It’s something that we’re very fortunate to be able to do, and it’s something that we share with everybody.
As a touring band, is it difficult to keep up the same level of energy night after night? I was just talking about this with our guitar player Joby. When you tour with so many different bands, you come across so many different people who are miserable and jaded and just seem like they want to quit. I’m proud of the fact that we’re not jaded, we love what we do, there’s a fire that still burns strong in The Bronx.
Joby J. Ford (Guitarist)
So you don’t see yourselves slowing down anytime soon? I could easily see this band going another 10 years; it’s something we want to spend the rest of our lives doing. Every time we write or record or play a show, it’s the best feeling in the world.
If there is an underlying message to The Bronx, as a band, what would it be? Don’t confuse yourself; confuse everyone else. We approach music at a very honest level, but once an idea gets past our filter, we try to scramble it in ways that make people scratch their heads and go, “What the fuck is this band all about?”
What’ s the process like for putting together a Bronx song? Usually Joby will send me a guitar lick or something and I’ll sit down and put lyrics and melody to it, and we’ll come up with a bare-bones track. Some bands can sit in a room with a blank canvas and come up with something, but for us it took a while to figure out that it helps to have a foundation. Some people can write aggressive music on the road; I can’t. Most of it gets written when we’re on a break somewhere.
Did it take a while to get used to being on the road so often? Touring’s just something we’re used to, and we learned a while back to tour a bit smarter than we had been touring. We used to just go and go and go to the point where we would say yes to any tour that was thrown our way. If you’re touring with a purpose and you’re out on the road with friends—whether it’s at your own shows or supporting someone that you respect, someone that you match musical styles with or at least have some common ground with—it goes a lot farther than just touring with some band that’s popular, because the next thing you know you’re playing in front of a bunch of 14-year-olds who hate your band. We’ve gotten it down to a science. We run everything in our world and we’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t.
Who were some of the earlier acts that helped you when you were coming up? The first tour was amazing. It was Rocket From the Crypt and the Spits. That was the first tour we did, and it was eye-opening—I’ll never forget it. I remember in the very beginning I had never sold merch before. I mean, I’d been in bands since high school but we never had anything. After one of our first shows I just remember all these kids, and they all wanted T-shirts and stuff and I was having a nervous breakdown. We were so green.
Ken Horne (Guitarist)
As you kept touring, what else stands out as a real inspiration for the band? The Circle Jerks and GBH tour across the U.S. was one of my favorites. We became such good friends with those guys. Keith from the Circle Jerks is a great dude, and the GBH guys are so solid. That tour was awesome—I mean, it was a pretty fucking punk tour. We went through some grimy-ass places. Over the years we’ve gotten to tour with Mastodon, Converge, the Dillinger Escape Plan. We did a tour where El Bronx opened up for The Bronx; that was a really special tour for us. It was a really cool vibe.
Eventually you started playing festivals and larger venues. What was that like compared to the earlier venues you played? The Foo Fighters and El Bronx tour was wild. First of all, we go on this crazy left-field acid trip and decide to make mariachi music. And then, not only do people like it, but we wind up playing arenas with the Foo Fighters. We would just walk out on stage and think to ourselves, How the fuck did this happen?
Whether it’s in an arena or a backroom club, what is it that you want to draw from the crowd? Whether it’s music or turning in a history paper, validation is validation. When you see people care about your work no matter what it is, it’s inspiring. That’s why most people give up: no validation, no one cares. People can only go through life being rejected so many times before they just stop talking, stop painting, until, to a certain extent, the creative side of life is over. That’s what’s great about punk: We’re there for them as much as they’re there for us. It’s all about the crowd’s attitude and the band’s attitude.
Do you get tattooed on the road, or is that something that you save for your downtime? I haven’t gotten tattooed in a hot minute. I’m looking to finish up something my friend Tony Hundahl did on my chest, and Oliver Peck did a bunch of our tattoos on the road. We would always stop by Oliver’s compound in Dallas and get a tattoo on the road. He’s definitely bonded the Bronx; he did our logo tattoos.
Who else has done work on you guys? Louis Perez III did the skull on my arm. I remember when I couldn’t pay rent but Louis was tattooing so he’d come over and I’d be his practice pad. He did “punk music” on my neck and the “138” on the back of my neck. I think the best times I’ve ever had getting tattooed were the early years, just being young and like, “Fuck it, gimme a tattoo.” As you get older you meet these amazing artists and you tend to plan things out a little bit more and be more strategic, but the best times are when you just want to fuck yourself up. Those are the ones that mean the most to me.
Brad Magers (Bass Guitarist)
If none of you were in The Bronx, what would you be doing right now? Joby would probably be doing graphic design; he does that on the side. Jorma? I imagine he would be drumming somewhere. It’s hard to say. For most of us there’s really no alternative. It’s safe to say that a couple of us might even be dead. I can honestly say that this band saved my life. I was super unhappy, doing a lot of drugs and just in a really bad place. I think that’s the way it is with musicians—no backup plan. It’s not really in our blood. My brother’s that way, these guys are the same, we’re tortured by the fact that we can’t live a life without meaning, so if we have to put all of our eggs in one basket to be happy, that’s the way it’s going to be.
What are you looking forward to the most from this tour? What do you see on the horizon? That’s the most exciting part: We don’t know. It’s a really cool time putting out a record. It’s like a clean slate, you know? This record could come out and everyone could hate it, or they could love it, or no one could hear it. There are so many things that you go through when it comes to something that you’ve worked so hard on. But at the end of the day it’s the unknown that’s the most exciting part. I know for a fact that we’re gonna go out and tour, come home, and start writing another record, but aside from that so many crazy fucking things could happen. And that’s where the good stuff is.
Matt Caughthran (Lead Vocalist)
As far as music goes, is there anything else you’re interested in working on? We haven’t really found a way to tie Bronx and El Bronx together yet. I think it would be a really cool thing to do if we could write original music for a movie that had both bands in it.
What makes this record special to you guys? This album sets itself apart because it’s the first time it finds The Bronx on somewhat stable ground, or at least as stable as our ground can be. It finds us with a purpose— we’re motivated and we aren’t overthinking it. The first record was sort of an uncorking of everything we’d been through in our lives. It was an explosion that had been bottled up for a long time. With the second album, we were trying to figure out what kind of band we were. We were on a major label, everyone wanted input on songs, it took a while to actually come out—just a bunch of crazy shit was happening. But as a band you’ve got to go down that road. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. The third record is where we really became a band, but it was also a time when we were on our shakiest ground. Everyone was broke. We had no manager, no label, no money coming in, nothing. The negativity and self-doubt worked its way into the record. I love that record and it was frustrating because it never got out to enough people.
What do you think helped pull you into a positive state again? We hit a wall and did El Bronx just to say “fuck it,” and doing that saved the Bronx and breathed life back into the band creatively and gave us confidence again. We realized we can write our own songs, put out our own records, and we’ve got the talent to do what we want to do. So after both maria- chi records, we felt unstoppable and it was all about taking that energy and making Bronx IV.
With everything that’s taken place over the last few years, has your message to the fans stayed the same? Absolutely. Punk music is something that’s still important, and I’m glad people are actively searching out new bands—don’t stop.