M.A.D. Wednesday Interview Series: The Obvious

jason kundrath speaks with The Obvious in what we hope is one of the most honest and thoughtful pieces you’ve read in some time …

The Obvious is: Angie Sugrim — vocals and guitar; Dan Astorri — guitar and vocals; Kevin Conroy — drums; Mike Smith — Bass

We Formed In: 2005

We’re Based Out Of: Asbury Park, N.J.

Find Our Current Music (online, in stores at): Bringing Wreck, our debut album, is available on iTunes, and at our live shows, (which your life is not complete without having been witness to).

New Record To Be Released: In September, tentatively titled One Way Ticket To Newark

Our Sound Has Been Likened To: Nirvana, Hole, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Late ’70s punk and ’90s alternative

Awesome/Famous Bands We’ve Performed With: New Model Army, Steve Conte of The New York Dolls, Chemtrail, Atlantic, Atlantic, Give Me Static, Sikamor Rooney, Brick & Mortar, Tara Elliot & The Red Velvets, I Hope You Die, Viva City (from England), The Dollyrots, The Graveyard School

Bands You’ve Seen Us In Previously: Mike Smith was formerly the bassist in Last Perfect Thing. Kev Conroy is currently a drummer in Last Perfect Thing, Detournement, and The Barnstormers. Both Mike and Kev were formerly in Captain James & The P.A.I.N.

Pop-Break: How did you become a part of the Downtown’s M.A.D. series?

Angie Sugrim: We have a really strong local community in Asbury Park, which is just a few miles south of Red Bank, and our friends bands like Chemtrail, Give Me Static and Sikamor Rooney have all played at The Downtown. Chemtrail and Give Me Static just played M.A.D. a few weeks back and recommended that we take part. It’s a great opportunity for local acts to play in a setting that’s different and have some exposure outside of our normal scene, and we heard that the house is really great to work with and had heard of us, so it was a natural pairing.

PB: Despite the presence of many successful women in pop music, female-fronted rock bands are relatively rare in 2011. Has this helped or hindered your role as the singer/guitarist of The Obvious?

AS: Despite me bracing myself for the worst, overall it’s been an extremely positive experience for me as a woman in a punk band. I would like to say that in the independent scene, especially out on the West Coast, I do see women regularly in rock bands, like Kathy Foster from The Thermals or the stellar line-up of Wild Flag, the all-female supergroup composed of former members of Sleater-Kinney and Helium. I’m not sure why the mainstream culture is failing to highlight acts like that, but it makes me feel really good to see those women and see them as completely equal members of rock culture—musicians who also happen to be women.

I will say that because of the lack of female perspective and expression seen in my immediate surroundings as far as the music scene, I think that being a woman definitely helps people remember us when they see us, especially when I let out my patented roar. I think it’s extremely important for people to see women like me, and to understand that punk rock isn’t exclusively a skinny white dude thing — it’s an egalitarian art form that’s open to anyone who has the guts to step up to the mic, to get behind an instrument and just mothertruckin do it without holding back.

What I enjoy most though, is when people accept us as a band, number one before anything else. And I feel really lucky to be in a band with dudes that see me as their equal, not some novelty broad.

PB: There’s nothing particularly “obvious” about your band on the surface. What was the inspiration behind the name?

AS: Well, growing up my socio-political intelligence developed in tandem with my musical intelligence. I always loved people like Kurt Cobain and Joe Strummer because while their music was always really catchy and they were extremely funny guys, they always had something really clever or important to say about really serious issues. Being a woman and an immigrant, I really admired people like Joe and Kurt because they thought that it was important for people like me, minorities, to be represented. And when you’re a 15-year-old kid in a white suburban town and you don’t look like anyone else and your family isn’t like anyone else’s, you start to feel pretty freaky, and that can get you down in a pretty serious way…

So when I took some political courses at Rutgers University (I have a degree in Political Science), I read an article and the author said “People like us, we fight for the obvious”. She was referring to things that seem obvious like equal rights or justice or fairness -— my gay friends who are second class citizens, the fact that women still get paid less for equal work, poor people who are kept in poverty because of systemic problems like green and exploitation, all that seems to be obvious to me as far as what needs to be addressed … The point is I think that art in general has a responsibility to push culture forward, to challenge the status quo and point out injustice and give voice to people that otherwise don’t get a chance to be represented in society. So people like us —- we fight for The Obvious.

PB: The Obvious expertly and ferociously evoke the sound of ’90s-era grunge — a sound largely absent from today’s mainstream rock. Do you think it’s time for a grunge revival? And is The Obvious the band for the job?

AS: Yeah, what the hell is that? You all have Nevermind on your iPods — a lot of you know every word to Live Through This. Belly, Soundgarden, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Afghan Whigs — and all the indie bands too —- Sloan, The Sundays. God, I feel like almost every band that came out then at least has a few perfect songs, if not entire albums …

I think that a lot of that ’90s sound came from people acknowledging that things were not OK -— AIDS was still a big issue then, we were much more progressive on things like environmental issues, we didn’t blindly embrace military operations, people seemed a lot more willing to be honest about ignorance and discrimination, and I think a lot of that unrest translated into inspiration and directly into sound—bands were LOUD.

They used distortion and music was cathartic. Artists created music that reacted to or spoke about culture, through direct means like Rage Against The Machine, or through personal allegories like in the case of Hole or The Afghan Whigs. We were much more concerned with fucking up the status quo, with doing something original and different, and we had a hella good time doing it, too—living an authentic life.

Nowadays I feel like, in mainstream music, no one speaks up or cares about much besides how they look or who they’re going to fuck or what party they want to go to, or who stole their girlfriend or who they think they’re better than. There’s no real anger or aggression or rebellion. It’s just like, let’s ignore the fact that we’re being exploited into oblivion -— all I care about is when I get my next drink, and how long I can make the party last.

So I think that there’s a direct link between this change in the focus of popular music and the absence of reference to that ’90s vibe and sound. I don’t care — I’m not going to dance myself to death at some penthouse party when I trip in my designer shoes. I’m going to hit my distortion pedal barefoot in some dirty club and do something that’s actually important — and have a fuck all great time doing it, P.S.

PB: Who are some of your favorite artists from that era? Who would you cite as a major influence?

AS: No. 1, Nirvana, hands down. And Hole — I love Hole through the ’90s — but the very last album and incarnation of the “band” was a disgrace to their legacy. The Afghan Whigs — Greg Dulli is one of my favorite men of all-time. I just loved the way he would wrestle with his demons so honestly in those albums, and then also on the flipside say fuck it and embrace those same demons -— a really pure and human thing.

Kim Deal is a right on rock goddess and she is just one of the most brilliant musicians of our time. Everything she’s ever been in The Pixies, The Breeders, The Amps -— all perfect bands.

I love Imperial Teen — everyone, go out and buy an Imperial Teen record! They have a pretty perfect discography. The Thermals! Go check out The Thermals! I love them and am in love with them! They are beyond wonderful! You will want their autographs, you will want to hang out with them and they’re such nice people, they’ll gladly oblige!

Of course, I love my classic artists, too — The Beatles (I’ve dreamed about John Lennon giving me music advice), Creedence Clearwater, The Everly Brothers, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, The Drifters, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder … that is all invaluable to me — great music and a great education in pop sensibility.

And let’s not forget classic indie artists like The Raincoats and The Slits. They came up with The Clash in England back in the ’70s and their work is second to none, in a category all their own.

The Obvious recorded with Pete of The Bouncing Souls (above)

PB: You recorded your debut EP Bringing Wreck with Pete “The Pete” Steinkopf of New Jersey’s own punk-rock legends, The Bouncing Souls. And you are reportedly working with him again for your sophomore release. Is he acting as a co-producer with the band? Has he been pushing you into new and exciting territory?

AS: The Pete! The Pete is the nicest, most down to earth, most amazing dude I have ever had the privilege of working with. I feel so really very lucky to be able to record with him -— we all do.

The great thing about Pete is that he is concerned with what you want the music to sound like. He has a really great sensibility and is very attuned to the sound we’re after. We’ll record something, and I’ll describe what I’m after and he knows how to direct me precisely to that sound with just a few suggestions. And he’s infinitely patient, but really efficient. When you’re down there in Little Eden Studios, you are working, no doubt, but it’s the funnest work in the world.

Pete takes us really seriously as a band, and also as individual musicians. Getting positive feedback from him has personally given me a lot of confidence. He recorded our last album, Bringing Wreck, and then DJ’d the record release party at The Asbury Lanes, and when he saw us play, he told our drummer, Kevin, that we were fantastic and he said that I was “on fire”. That will stay with me till the day I die -— Pete Steinkopf said I was on fire!

So having Pete on our side, that’s done a world of good for us as far as giving us some legitimacy to people that otherwise were sort of dubious about out ragtag gang being contenders in the crazy world of punk rock, including my own self. And Pete and the Souls are part of a community that is full of down-to-earth, good-hearted, and successful people, and I thank them for inviting us into that world.

Pop-Break: Live in concert, your band has been compared to a snarling junkyard dog infused with 2,500 volts, performing with “blood-drenched reckless abandon.” It sounds pretty awesome, actually. But am I putting myself in danger by checking out your show?

AS: Yes, but isn’t that the whole point of real rock ‘n’ roll? Ha! Iggy Pop got bloody, Kurt Cobain would jump off of amp stacks into drum kits, Karen O broke her back at one performance — real rock, real experience, a proper live show — that’s all rooted in danger and sex and all those visceral and fleeting and beautiful feelings and moments! We want to thrill and shock you into awareness! When I see a show, I want the band to make me lose my mind; I want to forget where I am …

So if I were you, I wouldn’t wear a shirt you care about, because I do tear them off of guys, and sometimes I don’t even realize it and I’m bleeding, so if you’re squeamish, definitely stand in the back …

You only go around once, right? So make it count. That’s what we do when we play: we play our little hearts out, we give it everything we’ve got. And that’s what we plan on doing for a long time coming.

NOTE: All photos in this interview were taken by Kristen Driscoll Photography