By Max Parker Dahl
SALT LAKE CITY — Dredg’s new album, “Chuckles & Mr. Squeezy,” has received some of the more scathing reviews of the decade from hard-core fans who feel they have been abandoned by their favorite dark, experimental rock group. I will admit that I salivated at the thought or mention of the release date. Call it classic or contemporary conditioning, but buzz about new albums from my favorite artists really gets my blood racing.
The reviews started piling up soon after the leak date in early April. One friend (a self-proclaimed ‘bigger dredg fan’ than myself) told me after downloading the album, “I don’t get it! I loved their other albums, but this is so strange that I don’t know what to do with it! I’m so disappointed I can’t get all the way through it”. Perusing online provided similar confusion and downright outrage. Where has their sound gone? Why did they do it? Will it ever return? Is the band calling it quits, and this is how they show the world?
I was sweating bullets when I picked up the album May 3, and nervously crossed myself before putting it on for my first listen. Surprisingly, I liked it. I recognized ‘Upon Returning’ from their tour with Circa Survive. I recognized dredg effects, and dredg lyrics. This was turning out to be far better than expected.
It took a second and third listen, but I started to develop a strange, deep philosophical theory about the Why? Where? When? behind the record. I was armed with this theory when I sat down with Mark Engles, guitarist for dredg, and had my paradigm rocked, rolled, and turned on its head.
The idea of the mask, becoming someone else and hiding who you really are, is that what’s going on here? Is that the big secret behind this album?
Engles: There’s not too much of a profound metaphor there. Drew started brainstorming with all of us when we were on tour with Circa Survive. He wanted to do photography for the art in this album when he started working on these masks, and he ran with the idea of actual photographs of people wearing masks. His brother Bo Roulette is a photographer, so it worked out fine as a kind of in-house family art package with Drew and Bo working together.
So is this the end of dredg as we know it? Have you been strong-armed into making music that will be commercially acceptable?
Engles: It’s a different record, because we went with a different type of producer. We went with one of our friends Dan the Automator and that’s the main difference in the record; the sound of it. There are still very ‘dredg-like’ songs but kind of in different clothing. Instead of heavy guitar, there is heavy keyboard; instead of live-sounding drums there is big giant beats, so still very much dredg if you break down the songs, just different instrumentation. It really is going with a different producer that has his own his own vision and his own sound that we enjoy and we trusted, and he has his stamp on it. It’s not that different. It’s the production, and some people can’t understand that production really changes the perception of a record, but hey, live a little.
Well, some of the lyrics sound like the band is writing songs mirroring the reviews! Songs narrate leaving home, lies, inevitability of giving in to something beyond your control – is this a lament and self-aware deprecation of how your music sounds to loyal fans?
Engles: I don’t write the lyrics, but I know about some of the lyrics. Something new musically could be there for us, but a lot of these lyrics are very personal for Gavin. Sometimes when things are personal and straight-forward they can come off as reaching out, but in a way he’s talking about meeting his biological parents, his sister that has been to Afghanistan three times, etc. With things like this, becoming more personal with lyrics some people can take as reaching out, but in a way its closer to him, rather than throwing in a bunch of metaphors and a bunch of analogies.
But have you abandoned your roots? What about the fans from the beginning, do you fear alienating them? Why is Squeezy so different?
Engles: It’s very obvious, it’s working with Dan the Automator, and also writing these songs not together. Gavin was living in Seattle, I was in San Francisco, the other two guys are living in the Greater Bay area, we traded ideas on our laptops via email, and that’s going to create a different type of feeling. Although I will say that if we approached this record like every other dredg record, a dredg rock-record, it wouldn’t be that different. Even when you see these songs live, there’s more guitars, Dino’s playing his drum set. You will see that it’s really not that different from things of the last 5 years. Yeah, it’s not going to be like something from Le Motif, but it’s not very different from Catch or Pariah, at all.
As for people who don’t understand this new direction? Those writing vicious reviews?
Engles: There is nothing wrong with that. I have bands that I love that if they put out a record that I don’t really care for, it’s not a big deal to me. What I have a problem with are people that feel they are owed something. A sense of entitlement is a bit ridiculous. Now days we live in a world where people who would never be in contact with us, ever, can reach out and contact you, but those people are ridiculous, but I have a feeling that they are the exceptions. When a band releases a new record that isn’t your cup of tea, but it’s not a big deal, you don’t lose sleep over it. You just carry on, or you listen to it a little more and let it grow on you. A lot of the time it’s the first listen, and you say ‘what the f*** is this?’ There will be other records, and our next one will be a lot different than this, and we’ll go with a different type of producer, maybe… or maybe not. You never know until you get there.
What is your favorite song on the album, lyrically?
Engles: I really liked what Gavin did with ‘Down without a Fight’ because of the softer tone of it. Where his voice lies he always has this great range, but he stepped back his range on that one. Dan did a great job in bringing out some great performances from him; they have a great relationship when it comes with vocals. Working with Dan, it was a very comfortable situation.
Let’s talk about ‘Down without a Fight’, this isn’t an open criticism of your new sound? Giving in so quickly?
Engles: The song is a narrative about a non-distinct species being driven out of the place they were living, and at first it’s the worst thing ever, but it ends up to be better in the long run because of where they end up. They ended up thriving. It’s not humans, it is whatever you want it to be, but I know he purposely had this narrative in his mind when he wrote it. I love playing ‘Down without a Fight’ because I get to play some keyboards live, which is fun. I already messed up in LA because I was out of tune. It sounded really bad. It’s a new instrument for me. I was playing the right part, but out of tune on the analog synth. It’s fun to walk across the stage. I’m playing Drew’s moog synthesizer and its very, very different after all these years of playing stage-left and playing guitar. All the new songs have been fun live, they have taken on a more raw energetic form live.
I know I’m slow, but if you haven’t sold out, and you’re not quitting as a band, what is your response to people who don’t like the album?
Engles: I would say oh well, sorry, I hope you like the next one. If you buy a record…sorry, most of all, it was downloaded for free most likely, there is always going to be another one, and there are always those in the past. If you’ve never heard of us and you don’t like it, whatever, it’s just the way it goes. What we’ve lost in the music industry is on the profit end for musicians, listeners have only gained; accessibility to almost anything in the world at any moment, and being able to track artists wherever they are. Everyone is informed immediately and knows what’s going on. It’s tougher to sell records and make money, but there is a huge gain there for everyone involved, especially on the listening side. On the fan’s side, you can find so much more. The record collections of 20 or 30 years ago are quite small compared to what people have today in their music catalogues now in laptops and iPods. That alone is a testament to what’s available now. You can collect things, and it may be free, but you can listen to more diverse of a spectrum and you can hold on to records as long as you’re backing it everything up. You still walk into homes and see records on shelves, but I’m sure that collection pales in comparison to your digital collection which could be monstrous. It’s a huge gain. You can find a small band from wherever, a small band you would’ve never found and they could be your favorite band ever.
So what are you listening to these days?
Engles: Anything that has great production and some pretty insightful lyrics are always my favorite.
And what do you say to bands that haven’t yet been discovered?
Engles: Honesty is probably the best thing. Besides that, I didn’t have any cliché advice like perseverance, those are obvious, but sometimes that alone doesn’t work. A lot of bands make it by being dishonest, but f*** them, ya know.