Brooklyn-native punk rockers The So So Glos' new record, Blowout—their best—will be released on April 23 by a new label they've helped put together, Shea Stadium Records, an outgrowth of the Williamsburg DIY venue where they live and work. In late March, I sat down at Shea with singer and bassist Alex Levine, guitarists Ryan Levine and Matt Elkin, and drummer Zach Staggers, plus producer and fifth Beatle Adam Reich; they quickly assembled a pop-up living room by the door, with couches and a coffee table, around which they sat drinking beers, rolling cigarettes, and passing a pipe. We talked about the new record, and also the last decade in New York, from the post-9/11 Strokes Era on the Lower East Side to DIY Brooklyn.
Let's start at the beginning. Where you're from.
Zach: We were born in Bay Ridge. I was born in 1986. Actually I was born in Manhattan. I was, I was born in Manhattan in 1986, lived in Bay Ridge from ages zero to six, seven, eight was when the whole turmoil was going on with our parents. Before that, we met each other at...
Ryan: Carousel Corner.
Zach: That was preschool.
Ryan: We were in the twos and threes together.
Zach: I think we were in separate classrooms, though.
Ryan: But I used to go into his classroom. For some reason, I got to go into his classroom.
Zach: I remember sneaking in also to your classroom. So we met, and we started playing and hanging out.
Ryan: We started a band.
Zach: Pretty much.
Ryan: It all started at Once Upon a Sundae, actually. Zach lived on 78th between Third and Ridge and we lived on 77th between Third and Ridge, and we ran into each other at Once Upon a Sundae, which was on the corner of 77th and Third. And we ran up to each other and that's how our parents met and that's how we fucked everything up. At about five years old. Five years old. 1990 is when our parents got divorced. Separated. It took like 15 years for them to get a divorce. But 1990 is when they got separated, and we started playing music soon after, together. Concerts for our parents in the living room. We were called The Dinosaurs. And we all had names: one of us was T-Rex, one of us was Velociraptor, and one of us was like Brontosaurus?
Zach: No, Stegosaurus.
Matt: I've never drawn so many correlations between your childhood and mine until this very moment. My first guitar was a PV Raptor. You had a PV amp and you called yourself a Raptor? Yeah, my mom bought it for me for like 100 bucks at a guitar place. A really shitty guitar. She wouldn't let me get the Fender. I said, "I want the Fender." She's like—brands. Still have it. Still a great guitar. My parents also took like 15 years to divorce. Happened in the 90s, although later in my life. I'm still reeling from that. It was really tough on me. I still feel like an orphan. I guess we all do in a way; that's why we found each other. I also grew up in Bay Ridge. [laughs]
Alex: Those are the real roots of the band. Even when we'd go over to Adam's... our dads were friends. We would record records. On tapes. That's what we did whenever we saw Adam—we'd record a record.
Adam: When I was growing up on 88th and Fort Hamilton Parkway I had that box that was a karaoke machine that you could plug two microphones in and a two-tape deck so you could record. And we'd plug the two microphones in and fight for it. Like whoever just grab it, sing into it, put it up to a guitar.
Ryan: Adam had one of those and then we got one, cuz he had one. We were like, "that's what you do." We probably got a karaoke machine for Christmas, and we were always very, very serious about our music. When we were seven-year-olds, we recording albums. Full albums.
Alex: And we made covers...
Adam: Yeah, remember that fat little conductor? The fat conductor guy?
Alex: That's the cover! That's the cover of every record.
Adam: It was like a make-your-own-cassette-cover program, and I was like seven, and I didn't know, and the only guy was like this generic image of a fat conductor, and that was the cover for every one. The titles would change.
Alex: There were so many volumes.
Adam: But it was fat conductor all the time.
Matt: I had a My First SONY, and I used to play Michael Jackson tapes, and New Kids on the Block Tapes, and Metallica tapes, and do like concerts for my parents. I remember headbanging so much that I threw up all night. I used to record a lot, but more so I used to just make albums. I remember when Doggie Style came out I was really obsessed with the cover art. Cuz my mom said it was naughty, and I didn't know why, because I didn't know what doggie style meant. So I made an album about dogs. And I drew a cover, and I wrote all these songs about the life of dogs. I wonder if my dad still has that...
Ryan: An album was done when the tape was over. Both sides of the tape were filled. That's when an album was done. I remember this one time we had finished an album. And this was like, yeah, our third album, you know? And we kept track, and it was serious. And I remember this one time we had finished this album and the fucking machine ate the tape. And it was like months and months of work, and it got ruined. And it was a really traumatic thing.
Alex: Probably one day of work, really. I recently went through all our childhood tapes, cuz we were looking for samples for [Blowout], almost a year ago. But I put them all onto this computer. And there's a lot of it. I didn't even get through a quarter of it. It was just so many records. A lot of repeating songs.
Ryan: They evolved. Our first hit was called "Red Hot Sun."
Zach: First hit!
Ryan: And we played that for years. And there was a certain point where we were like, "well, this song's not that good. We have to retire this song." That was by middle school.
Photo by Boogie
Alex: Our roots started in Bay Ridge. I think that's why we have such a nostalgic feeling for that place: it's where we met, it's where our band started. But really, we moved around a lot. I remember when our mom moved out of Bay Ridge, like 1995 or something, and my dad lived there forever, but he moved into like three different apartments, then he was living with my stepmom, then he moved to Queens, and then me and Ryan lived on Long Island like half a year when our grandpa was sick. Then [our dad] moved to Atlantic Avenue, and then now he lives in Red Hook. So, a lot of moves within the same neighborhood. Then my mom moved to Westchester; Zach's dad, Westchester as well. And just like moving a lot in the Tri-state area. We've always been in suburbs, growing up. Suburbs on the fringe of a city. Even Bay Ridge. Matt's from Connecticut.
Zach: We're products of the generation before: our parents are all from the city, their whole lives they were trying to get out. That's what it was about. We were there for the beginning, and then we sort of making the moves that came with divorce, when they were forced to make decisions about schools, and all this and that... When I was in Westchester, when I first moved up there, I was a bad kid.
Ryan: We were seen as the dirty kids from the city.
Zach: Our parents were also fighting outside the school. Like "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" unfolding outside of fuckin' some nice ass school in Westchester. Some public school but with, like, columns and shit. For me, I felt the whole time like an outsider, you know? And also the parents started not letting me play with their kids. And I was a bad kid! I was building bombs, doing drugs at a really young age.
Ryan: Smoking pot at 13.
Zach: Yeah, we were bad kids. We were all really bad kids.
Ryan: We were the kids some parents wouldn't let their kids hang out with.
Zach: We were really bad.
Ryan: We were having fun. Everyone else was bitches! But it was funny, because we got into music really young, music that was on MTV, like all that early 90s stuff—Nirvana, Green Day, Offspring—and when we moved out of Brooklyn and moved up there, none of the kids that were up there listened to music. They didn't know anything about music except like Michael Jackson? I guess they knew Michael Jackson. But they didn't know anything that was contemporary or what we thought was edgy. And I remember Alex did really good impressions of Billie Joe and kids would make Alex—I don't remember if we charged them or not—sing them songs. They wanted to hear it, too, they were hungry for it, but we introduced music to all these kids. And they were like, "Alex, sing 'Welcome to Paradise,'" and he would do the impression and everyone would stand around and watch him do it. He was in like second grade.
Matt: People I meet today, still, it amazes me—you'll ask someone what their first record was. Most people only got their first shit in like sixth or seventh grade. I had a full-on record collection when I was like eight.
Ryan: Yeah, us too.
Matt: My parents, instead of giving me allowance, would let me buy a record every week. All compact discs.
Ryan: Or tapes. It was our parents who were, not pushing us, but they'd be like, "you can buy one CD." That was a thing. And that's what we wanted to buy, and they bought it for us, and got us guitars and drums and shit. They supported us always. Really, they introduced us to music. They played us New Wave and punk stuff, tons of different stuff, listening to music that was on MTV back then, letting us watch MTV all day long. I guess it was to keep us out of their hair. But they would let us park in front of the TV and watch MTV all day, and that's how we got into stuff, contemporary stuff, the first stuff that was ours and not theirs.
Alex: That's kind of a long-winded answer to the question of where we're from.
Ryan: Yeah, you wanna ask another question?
Photo by Boogie
When did you become The So So Glos?
Alex: 2006. Zach was in Israel when we agreed on the actual name. It was spring, and I remember we were just talking about... I don't know, there were a lot of new songs we were sending back and forth to each other, and we just thought of that name, and that was it. Once he got back we started playing back-to-basics rock n' roll, you know? Cuz we'd been doing like really punk stuff...
Zach: 'So So Glos' came out of a lyric that Ryan had written. We were living in Williamsburg—we moved to Williamsburg in 2004, we were like 18, I was working at American Apparel, going to college briefly, just fucking around. (I'd graduated high school a year early.) And then that was like the first time we saw what is a hipster, what was a hipster. And I think that name, The So So Glos, couldn't come out of any other... that's when we became so so glos, too, in the sense of the meaning of what a so so glo is.
What is a so so glo?
Ryan: I can tell you where it started. Zach went to Israel, and we weren't playing music, and I kinda lost my mind. And I was partying a lot, cuz I was going to college and I didn't care about college, and I was just going out every night, and going to these really plastic, hip parties with plastic, hip people. And I realized it while I was in it, and it disgusted me, so I drank more and to not feel like I was there, and it was a vicious cycle kind of thing. Anyway, I wrote this song called "Broken Mirror Baby" about myself and my friend, and it's about being really into your image and being into your ego. But the song is about combating that, having a self-awareness to not let that part of your ego go crazy. You know, fighting it. That's how it started. We started calling people [that weren't self-aware] like that so so glos. If you're standing in front of a mirror too long, you're a fucking so so glo. If you're walking down the street and you're looking into every single store window even though you're gonna look the same in every fucking one, but you still look into every single one as you walk down the street, you're a fucking so so glo. There was a line in that song—cuz I did that, and I was like, "god, this is really stupid." It was pathetic. I would walk to the subway, and I always walked the same way because... it was, I looked in the mirror before I left the apartment, I'd walk to the Bedford stop, I would always walk by this place that, the first floor was reflective, it was a mirror, and I would walk by that so I could look in the mirror again.
Alex: Just an attack on hip, egoist culture.
Zach: It almost means hipster, narcissistic hipster. Hipsterism, what we've seen from the aughts on, hipsters just reappropriate other fads from other ages, dressing like they're either from the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s, depending on what their style is. But there's no new culture around it, it's all borrowing from old cultures without using any of the actual principles the culture stood for. It's just rehashing without the original glow. A so-so glow.
Ryan: And at that time, the Lower East Side was cool. It was very... still a hangover from the Strokes period of Lower East Side. That was still a thing at that point. Skin-tight pants, beadle boots and fucking a black-and-white striped shirt and bangs in your eyes.
Alex: A time in New York when showing any kind of emotion, real emotion, was really not cool. Here we came on with this brash, in-your-face punk rock, rock n' roll...
Ryan: We were trying to say something, not necessarily... some of it's political, but a lot of Alex's lyrics are really social commentary. It wasn't just about doing drugs and hanging out with girls. It was songs about what we saw and commenting on what we saw, disagreeing with things, and calling things out that we thought were bullshit. And that's what the lyrics were about. And people were like, "what the fuck do you guys care about so much?"
Alex: We were getting in trouble a lot at those hip parties. We were getting banned from a bunch of them. And talk about outcasts when we were growing up—we really didn't fit into that scene at all. That beginning was where the So So Glos name, mentality, philosophy came from originally. But then somehow we found Joe Ahearn and this all-ages scene, which was just starting to become a thing. He kinda rescued us from that, our friendship with him in those really early days before this was a scene.
Ryan: It was a feeling like we were looking for something but we didn't know what. And then when we played our first show with Joe we realized this is what we were looking for. We walked into a basement all the way, deep Broadway, like Bed-Stuy area, and there were like 20 kids, young kids, not like 27-year-olds, too-cool-for-school, hanging out in Piano's. It was young kids, leather jackets, drinking 40s in the basement of a bar that obviously none of them were old enough to get into. I'm talking about Micheline's.
Matt: How much do you think 9/11 impacted this New York wasteland culture? The Strokes record came out on September 11th, if I remember correctly.
Alex: That kind of disheartened, apathetic feeling that was like a hangover from 9/11 definitely influenced that too-cool-for-school culture.
Ryan: It made people not want to care about things, because they were like, "everything's fucked." A plane can just come out of the sky and kill you. It was like, what the fuck do we care about? And then, something's gotta happen—someone's gotta care again. And we just started to feel that, and as we started to feel that, we simultaneously started playing music, and it came into our music. You know, we were raised on punk rock.
Alex: We were really welcomed into the all-ages thing with Joe, and we felt like... not like we belonged, because there weren't any rock n' roll bands in that scene at all. It was mostly art-school stuff.
Ryan: And we hated that whole Lower East Side thing at that point. And this was a rebellion against it—against those shows at Piano's where they would just tally off who came into the show for each band, and people would come into the show and just leave. And we were all underage, so we were sneaking our friends in the backdoors and getting kicked out of the clubs.
Zach: We got kicked out of CBGBs the first time we played there.
Alex: Banned from CBGBs. The more safe the city got, the more clean and restricted the art scene got.
Matt: Plus, shit just got too expensive.
Photo by Boogie
Alex: What was that question anyway? What is a so so glo?
Zach: When did you start the So So Glos. 2006. It was originally started with Ryan and Alex's other step brother, Tim Greeley, so it was us four. That was the first incarnation. And then there was this second incarnation with this kid Joel, who we called Yoli, and he played on the first album. And then Matt joined right after, Matt joined in 2007.
Matt: I didn't really think I was in the band until some months later when we started working on songs together. I thought I was just going to fill in for a while.
Ryan: Yeah, we really needed someone to play guitar really bad. And we asked a lot of people. And Matt said yes. So it was just like, ok, go on this tour, see how it goes, see if we get along. We didn't know each other at all.
Zach: The first time we saw Matt I went to Ryan, "yo, keep an eye on this kid." But even before I saw you play, I met you—you introduced yourself to me on the street. He was like, "hey! I'm Matt!" Like really excited. I thought you were from Venezuela or some shit, cuz I'd met Juan right before I met you, and I thought you were part of Juan's crew from South America. And I thought immediately when I found out you play guitar, before I even saw you play... and then I saw you play, and was like, "whoa. He's good."
Matt: Yeah, I was a lot nicer back then, and excited to be a part of that whole thing. It was an exciting time!
Alex: I remember the first time I saw Silent Barn I was like, "whoa." In the basement?
Matt: There hadn't been any really long-standing spaces then. Joe was setting up one-offs with these dubious characters. Like near the Bergen 2 stop. It was a hat factory on the upstairs of this old firehouse. It was a beautiful space, but the guy fucked Joe out of a shit-ton of money at the end of the night. And he still managed to pay the bands.
Zach: We were also both from New York. I had met Joe in high school, and we didn't meet him again until we met him in another state. We were in Providence, Rhode Island; he booked some DIY show, and we played. It was where we re-met him. "I remember this guy, he used to have a mohawk 10-feet tall." And he was working with Todd [P.] at the time, and he was learning from Todd how to put on shows, and that show changed our lives. That was our first time going on tour almost. We played a house party in Rhode Island. And the crowd was going crazy.
Ryan: Which for us was really crazy. Because you don't play houses in Brooklyn!
Alex: We were just so used to playing parties where everyone was just standing around at the back, jaded as hell. So it was really exciting finding the DIY scene, and it became part of...
Ryan: We became part of it, and it became part of us.
Matt: "Chapter One: When Interpol Ruined the Earth." And all those Lower East Side rocker dudes look so fucking bad now.
Zach: Guys, c'mon, we're gonna look just as bad if not worse. Those guys are some of our biggest fans, though... we like to think of ourselves as highbrow, but really we're just lowbrow.
Ryan: You want to ask another question?
Let's jump ahead to Blowout. What's the significance of the name?
Alex: Blowout: a victory for the underdog, a tire that's blown, a haircut in New York City, a party, a sale. Did I say flat tire? Speakers that are really loud. Compression.
Matt: Oo, The Loudness War.
Alex: Yeah, trying to win The Loudness War.
Matt: Loud was a pretty unifying theme.
Zach: Blowing out is an action. Like, we just blew it out. That's what blowout is.
Matt: It's the guy next to you on the train with the fucking Beats by Dre headphones.
Zach: It's the fucking guy today: some guy spit in the fucking conductor's face! He was blowing it out.
Alex: We saw an assault today. "The city's blown out," like post-apocalypse, or the actual fallout, like the explosion.
Ryan: And hi-fi. An album that doesn't sound like a washed-out garage album, which is what a lot of things sound like. Like, a band that can play their songs.
Adam: Bricked out.
Matt: Bricked out is when [the sound levels are just] fucking dark.
Adam: There's no wave, really.
Matt: There's no dynamic.
Adam: It's just squares. We got a mix back once, I was like, "yo that shit is bricked out, son!"
Zach: And we didn't like the mix. But now we like it. Now we brick it out. At first, we were scared of bricking it out.
Adam: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Brick it out.
Alex: No—if you join them, you can beat them. That's the difference.
You've been sitting on this album for a while.
Alex: Yeah, it's flat. We've been sitting on it so much it's flat. It's like up our ass.
Ryan: It's like when you have your wallet in your pocket for really long in your jeans, and your jeans fade to have the wallet mark on them. I hate that. We've been sitting on it for a year.
Zach: A year! Not that long. Everybody's like, "oh it's really long." I mean, what is a year? It's 12 months.
Matt: Yeah, who cares, man? The world wasn't ready for it when we finished it! That's what we decided.