Getting Joan Jett’s stamp of approval on your work is no small feat. To do such a thing twice is even more of a testament to a band’s punk prowess. Well, if that sounds like a shining endorsement to you, look no further than Cleveland-based punk band The Vacancies. Their latest outing on Blackheart Records is being praised by critics and landed the band a spot on this year’s Warped Tour. Live-Metal.Net’s Jason Price checked in with vocalist Billy Crooked about the the evolution of the band, the new album Tantrum and what it is like sharing the stage with some of his influences, which just so happen to be some the genre’s biggest names.
Live-Metal: For people not familiar with the band, The Vacancies, how did the band come about?
Billy Crooked: Well, our guitar player Michael James, and I are the original members from 1998 and at that time I wasn’t singing, I was playing guitar. Our singer at the time left to do his own thing and we parted ways. Then we just kind of got the right people together and we just hung out in Cleveland, playing our asses of for a very long time. It really wasn’t until 2004 when we hooked up with Blackheart Records, Joan Jett’s label, that we put out our second record. So that is what started getting us out. We started touring and actually doing press. Basically, that is how it came about. We just met through mutual friends and we had been in bands for a long time before that. Even our new drummer and rhythm guitar player are from a band that we used to play with all the time called Dead By July. There are not a ton of bands in Cleveland that play this kind of music. So the people who are dedicated and work hard just seem to find each other.
What inspired you to get into music and to go this route?
I actually started kind of late. It was just after high school. That’s when I really started to go to shows. So I was a late bloomer. I am 31 now, so it feels like I have been doing it a long time! I was always really into music, but it never dawned on me that I could pick up a guitar and be in a band until I started going to shows. At that time, I was really naive and the only punk music I knew about was the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and The Clash. That was the extent of my knowledge. I didn’t have an older brother or older friends who were handing my records. So once I found it on my own, I decided that this is what I want to do.
So what are some of the other bands that influenced you?
It was a lot of that early ’90s California punk that was out at the time. I was like, “Wow, this is really still happening.” So it wasn’t just the old stuff. At the time, I associated punk with being old, but when I saw bands like Pennywise and Rancid, it was really cool to see that this stuff was still going on. It was fun to look at the bands and see that they were guys that were my age, going out there and doing shows. It was everything about the music, it was something that I just latched onto. Then I was spending every other day in a record store just absorbing it.
Now that The Vacancies have been around for a number of years, what has been the biggest milestone for the band?
Hooking up with Blackheart Records was definitely a huge stepping stone for us. We had one record out before on a really small label in 2002 called Gutpunch. Around that time, we had all these songs written and we didn’t know what to do with them. We had no interest coming from labels and we basically played in Cleveland and a few weekends in Pittsburgh or Detroit. We would catch up with any show that we could and latch on to any band coming through, that was a national act. We were opening for everybody! [laughs] But we just couldn’t branch out. When we opened up for Joan Jett and The Blackhearts and they took notice of us and wanted us to do a record, that is really when we started to develop and started to make us more of a professional band. Then we were able to record, all these songs that we had written from the past two and a half years and go into the studio in New York. Joan produced that album and we were finally able to present all that material that we were so anxious to get out.
Where do you draw inspiration to write lyrics for the songs?
I think a lot of our songs take on a lot social issues. We just write about them from the prospective of the average guy or girl. I don’t think that we are overly political or that we preach. We just talk about things are frustrating. It seems that the things that you and I are frustrated with are the same things that a lot of people out there are frustrated with. It’s watching the news or just walking down the street and seeing people being rude or prejudiced, you see all these different things. I think we are just level-headed, normal guys that don’t like to see someone get bullied. That goes for the kid on your street to the politicians. I think that our music comes from a very real area. I guess we are just trying to give a few ideas or to enlighten a little bit. Even if it is something is simple as having common courtesy to your neighbors to touching on poverty. There are no sad love songs not that there is anything wrong with sad love songs! [laughs] There is always a time in everyone’s life for a moody love song!
You mentioned Gutpunch earlier, how has life for The Vacancies changed in the time since you released that first record?
Gutpunch didn’t have a lot of distribution and no one really knew about it. It was basically a record that we took to shows and we sold to give people an idea of who we were. The difference of being able to play shows we can play now, liked Warped Tour, is like night and day. We are now able to reach people all over the country instead of just playing shows in a small city where everybody knows each other. It is really a good feeling when you go to another state and a kid comes up to you and they have that passion in their eyes because your music touched them in some way.
For the people who are just getting into the band, how would you describe what you guys do?
Well, I think we do our own thing and that we definitely have our own sound. I don’t think that we try to fit a genre. Sometimes I don’t think some people even consider us a punk band because there are so many subgenres and so many different ideas of what punk is. You ask one person what punk is and then ask another, and each one has a totally different idea of what punk is. We really just try to do our own thing and like John Lennon said, “Mean what say and say what you mean.” There is honesty in what we do and we work really hard to write the best songs we can.
What do you hope that people come away with after listening to your music or seeing your live performance?
I guess I want the same thing that happens to me after I walk out of a good show. Whatever music it is, I want them to walk away with the same thing that I expect from the band and that is “No Bullshit.” Audiences aren’t stupid and they can read right through that. I think that is the thing that I have seen a lot of bands do. They underestimate the intelligence of the crowd. Granted, some people do get fooled by the bullshit. When I see a band, I can tell that they mean what they are doing. They are up there because they love it and that there is no stick and is real. That is what we try to do. Whether we are playing for four people or 400 people, it’s the same show. We have fun doing it and the day that I get up on stage and it isn’t fun anymore is the day I will stop doing it. It’s not about trying to be famous or trying to get paid or trying to get laid, it’s about the music.
Your latest release, Tantrum, is your second go-round with producer Kenny Laguna and Blackheart Records. Was there more pressure this time around?
This time there was definitely less pressure. The first record that we did with Blackheart, Kenny and Joan, was and I’ll be honest, nerve-wracking as hell! I grew up a big fan of Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. I had their tapes in my car and we knew a little bit about Kenny Laguna. So once we had played with Joan and met Kenny, we realized that he was from the old school and has been around and we were like, “This guy is the shit!” So when they flew us out to New York to record the record, we had only done a couple of shows with them, so we really didn’t know them and I was starstruck meeting Joan. So, all of a sudden we are going to spend two weeks with them. It isn’t like we are the most confident, cocky band, so I am thinking, “I hope I can sing alright” and “I hope we don’t fuck up our songs” and “What if they think we suck?” But at the same time, they made it really comfortable for us. By the second day, we were like old friends, which made the record that much easier to do. But this time around, they backed the record and they were supportive. They listened to our demos and thought that it would be a great record, so go for it. We did everything in Cleveland. Kenny came out and checked out some tracks and this time it was much more laid back. The fact that we were able to do it at home was cool. We would work all day and then go to the studio at night. So it was really tiring, but it was a different vibe. The first time we were in New York to record an entire album in a week. On this one, we took our time and were able to relax more to do exactly what the songs needed. Definitely a different vibe this time around.
So I take it that you are pleased with the way it turned out?
Oh yeah. I mean, I am proud of all of our records. This one I am especially proud of because it is the new one, so it is the songs that I am least sick of! [laughs] We really are proud of it and happy to be able to be out on tour so people can check it out. So far we have gotten nothing but great response on it, and the majority of people are saying that it is our best one yet. I feel that Tantrum is our best record yet.
How is life on the Warped Tour treating you?
Good! Not bad! I can’t complain, and it is fun. I’m not at work, slinging a paint brush around and climbing 32-foot ladders, you know what I mean?
So this is a summer vacation of sorts for you.
This is vacation! I just people watch and I like to meet random people. Talking to some of the kids’ parents is a blast. They are some of the most fun people to meet because they are so into the fact that their kids are into the music and they are so proud! So that is cool. It’s been good. This is our first time on Warped and it is really cool.
What is it like touring with some of the bands that have influenced you?
Last summer we toured with The Adolescents (www.theadolescents.net) and Street Dogs (www.street-dogs.com) and those are two great, great bands! They are some of the nicest people in the world. It is one of those things where we became an instant family and everybody watched out for each other. It doesn’t get any better than that, people that share a livelihood and a passion for music. The guys from The Adolescents were just so incredibly nice and generous. I can’t describe how cool of an experience that was for me. Last fall we went out with Circle Jerks (www.officialcirclejerks.com) and Pennywise (www.pennywisdom.com), we only did a week and a half, but to watch those bands every day and studying them, makes me feel like I am continually getting an education about what can make a band great. Watching Keith Morris on stage for a week and a half is something that I won’t forget. So I try to take a little bit of that and let it sink in and try to give back that intensity that he gives the crowd.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Well, like I said, I think that Tantrum is our best work to date. I think that if people pick it up and really listen to it, that they will enjoy it. I’m not going to give any money-back guarantees because I am broke! [laughs] But seriously, give it a chance. I think if you are someone who hasn’t heard of us but is into the bands that I mentioned, it is definitely worth giving it a listen.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.