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James Summerfield - Interview

  by Alex Halls

published: 21 / 6 / 2005

James Summerfield - Interview


American punk act Smoke or Fire's debut album 'Above the Fire' came out on Fat Wreck earlier this year. Frontman Joe McMahon talks to Alex Halls about it and his band's recent appearance on the European Deconstruction tour

In speaking to Smoke or Fire’s vocalist, Joe McMahon, one appreciates the efforts made by musicians and the strain that devoting one’s time to music can have on one’s personal and financial life. Smoke or Fire are no different, having gambled on a move from their home base of Boston for the financially less constraining Virginian city of Richmond. Boston can be credited for the harder edge to Smoke or Fire’s music but as Joe remarks: "Richmond has given us the financial freedom to spend our time improving ourselves as musicians and developing the way we write our songs. We have less stress and more time where we can really work on being a better band." Starting off as many small bands do, their first EP @Workers Came'(although 'Above the City' is officially the band’s debut) was recorded and self-released on their own Iodine Records in 2003 in an attempt to attract label interest and, unlike many bands, interest came. Tempted by these initial offers, Smoke or Fire held out, preferring to see what else would come their way. Eventually Fat Wreck called and an offer was accepted: "Fat’s a label with a good reputation that works very hard for its bands. Even with offers from other labels, as a band we agreed we wouldn’t sign unless we felt completely comfortable. Having toured with other bands we always asked how they felt on their labels as their opinions are the ones that matter: Fat Wreck was the only label we never heard a bad thing about." Despite the label interest, the journey so far has been no easy ride. The band was initially called Jericho, but were forced to change their name to Jericho RVA and then, after they signed to Fat Wreck, Smoke or Fire when they disovered there was another Australian band with the same name. Cautiously approaching the subject of the band’s forced name change, as one might expect with this delicate matter, all concern was quickly dispelled as Joe spoke openly about the matter. Having made a name for themselves by touring, as Joe pointed out, it was initially an anxious time for the band: "having no label before, it seemed as if it was going to be difficult to get the word out that the band had changed it’s name but Fat Wreck did such a good job promoting us. It turned out not to be as big a deal as we thought it would be." Initially the band thought that it had put the problem behind itself, in adding RVA to the Jericho name. The turning point, it seems, came when informing the Australian Jericho of Fat Wreck’s interest in the band. Now disliking the growing significance of a band similarly named, which could ultimately lead to trademark conflicts if the band was to step into the Australian market in the future, the established Jericho sought change. With fame and recognition there comes complication: as a small American punk outfit, there was no perceived danger of much trademark infringement but as a Fat band things were different. Hence, Jericho RVA became the band we now know as Smoke or Fire… Describing the band’s ambitions as already having been met, Joe seemed relaxed about what the future might hold: "everything we do now is a bonus, we’re just happy to be on the Fat label and touring such diverse places." I enquired further about the places the band has visited and whether they get to explore the areas they go to: "we certainly try to. It all depends on what time you arrive and where you are. If you’re in the middle of nowhere there’s no chance and you wouldn’t know where to go either. We played downtown London, Amsterdam and some small places in Germany and got to explore there a bit, bolting off at the first chance." The band recently appeared on the European Deconstruction Tour (alongside Strung Out, Boy Sets Fire, Mad Caddies, Only Crime)and this certainly gave Smoke or Fire a number of positives to take back to the States. In fact, there was a positive to be found in everything. As the band’s first time in Europe; first time on tour with catering; and playing to massive crowds, the experience was "unbelievable." Even with increasing fame Joe remains humble, stating that he is simply thankful for being given the opportunity to do this. The remarkable thing about the Deconstruction tour is indicatively the range of venues that are played. When I asked Joe whether any particular countries stood out on tour his response confirmed the venue variety: "there were some places where we could have been in the middle of Wisconsin, in the States, as we were in the middle of a field [outside Paris].’ And where stood out? ‘I loved Germany, Amsterdam was amazing and beautiful; London was also one of my favourites." If anyone was to claim there was little substance to Smoke or Fire then they’d be wrong. Having previously released songs on past EPs that are politically minded at times, Smoke or Fire also express the irony of the fight against drug abuse in 'Cops and Drugs' on the 'Above the City' album: "It is something that most people in this country [United States] have issues with, growing up around it and seeing the effects of painkillers and antidepressants. The country believes it can solve the issue by numbing the problem rather than dealing with it. People also seem to take this stance, not wanting to deal with other people’s problems, preferring to sweep them under the carpet. Rather than figuring out the problem it is generally accepted that short-term solutions are implemented." Musicians almost always have their own favourite songs amongst their own compositions and Joe’s is 'Loving, Self-Loathing' as it marks a point at which he feels better within himself, and proves not all the songs that he writes are driven by angst. He notes being motivated by bands that he used to see live, those "that you could relate to. We all started playing music at an age where we were trying to figure our lives out; therefore I was always inspired by bands that made me feel better about things." With no particular process for writing songs, which probably helps create varied song patterns, both Joe and guitarist Jeremy Cochran write on their own, coming together later and both working on the songs as: "when we work together we come up with the best songs. When we have a basic song structure we’ll bring the rest of the band in and we’ll make changes as we feel fit." Smoke or Fire’s originality may well lie here. Once again demonstrating his humility, Joe notes that "Jeremy is more technical, whereas I tend to write more of the 4-chord stuff." Having already spoken about where Joe’s musical inspiration came from I asked whether he felt Smoke or Fire could have the same effect on others that bands had had on him when he was younger: "I hope so. I hope we can be that band that puts out a record that people will still listen to in years to come. They are the records I still listen to.’ I questioned further whether it was simply the band’s music or its message that should inspire: I’d like to give the impression that we are a band that doesn’t have to do things a particular way, we can stick with it and things then work out for us. It’s about retaining creative control over your band. We’d like others to become inspired by that." And what did Joe feel about music itself: "music is one of the only things in the world that people can agree that they love. I’ve never met anyone in my life who doesn’t enjoy music. It’s a powerful medium that simply attracts people to it." Understandably any Smoke or Fire fan will be wondering when the next record may be released. Unfortunately it currently appears a long way off but the band is providing more than enough of the live entertainment that makes music so special: "Right now we’re just focusing on touring that is organised. In the past we’ve toured a lot but we had to organise everything ourselves. Right now we have the opportunity to tour with bands we love and pay our rent while we’re away from home. It’s looking up for us on the touring front and as that’s what we love to do, we’re going to concentrate on that and promoting the record [Smoke or Fire are touring through until December]. At some point next year we’ll sit back down and think of a new record."

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James Summerfield - Interview

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