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Break Even or Die Trying: Spanish Love Songs’ Dylan Slocum on Punk Success

Amsterdam’s Leidseplein is a lively place. It’s a brisk Monday night, but still the plaza’s bars and restaurants are full of reveling locals enjoying dinner, confused tourists trying to navigate the trams and zombie-eyed stoners doing nothing in particular. Tucked down one of the many side-streets that lead off it is the Melkweg, a multi-purpose venue complex converted from an old milk factory, and tonight six-hundred punks are set to roll through its doors to yell their hearts out.

Somewhere deep in a labyrinth of grey corridors, Spanish Love Songs’ dressing room is a hive of nervous energy. In a few days the band are releasing Brave Faces Everyone, the follow up to 2018’s pop punk sleeper hit Schmaltz, and there’s a tangible buzz in the air. The album, out February 7th, leaked a couple of days before. The early reaction from a growing fanbase that’s fallen head over heels for their melancholic Americana has been positive.

The Californians are halfway through a tour of Europe supporting The Menzingers alongside Mannequin Pussy, but for all the online talk of the shows so far you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was SLS topping the bill. Add the fact that they got through three waves of physical records in pre-order alone while also selling out their road stock before the tour had even begun in earnest and, by every perceivable metric, Spanish Love Songs seem like a band on the cusp of something big. 

Year of the Knife Internal Incarceration out August 7

Still, the scene backstage isn’t quite what you might expect from a band riding the crest of a wave in one of the world’s most hedonistic cities. Vocalist, de-facto band-leader and accountant all at once, Dylan Slocum is ignoring the chatter around him as he sits at his laptop poring over an update to the band’s tech rider. He tries to abandon it to grab a coffee and talk about the new record, but first he needs to make sure the merch counts are up-to-date. And then check on a few other band admin situations. Such is the life of a punk rocker in 2020.

“Alright,” he says, putting on his jacket. “Let’s party.”

Away from the venue, the extent of the ‘party’ pre-show ends up being that Slocum has his arm twisted into going for a beer instead of a coffee at a bar across the canal. Bizarrely, for a place that plays Danzig on its jukebox around the corner from a punk show, the place is deserted but for its owner who is nonetheless in high spirits as she brings drinks to the table.

“Lemmys all round!” She exclaims. Slocum’s arm is twisted a little further by a round of Jack Daniels and Coke. “I don’t have any straws, but I don’t think Lemmy drank with a straw.”

“Weirdly, I know for a fact he didn’t.” Slocum replies. “I know somebody who was there when Lemmy was drinking and he did not use a straw.”

“Well, mystery solved! What’s left in the world now?” The owner asks herself as she walks away.

Slocum’s off-hand knowledge of Lemmy’s drinking preferences isn’t much of a surprise. From talking to him, it doesn’t take long to figure out that he’s particularly well-read on rock music’s many narratives. A former music journalist himself, and someone who could talk for hours about the intricacies of any number of discographies from The Mountain Goats to Blink 182 to, weirdly, Third Eye Blind, he’s also very aware of his own band’s place in the long and winding lineage of music.

Before the band had settled in to record Brave Faces Everyone, Slocum spoke about wanting to channel the energy of Springsteen’s Born To Run in his new songs. It was a tall ask, given the contrast between the wide-eyed optimism of Springsteen’s stories and Slocum’s downtrodden pessimist blues, and it’s no surprise that the result isn’t quite what he once had in mind.

Born To Run is Springsteen at twenty six years old,” Slocum says, himself wide-eyed about the record, “about to get dropped from his label feeling like, ‘Alright, I have to write the greatest rock album of all time,’ and is telling these stories of young people who were going to run away into the unknown and make it, ’cause that’s what he was doing.

“But then after that, and I don’t mean to get into Bruce history-” Spoiler: he does, at length. “Darkness On The Edge Of Town, The River, Nebraska are all so depressing. I think he grew up a little bit and realized how life really was. I’m not twenty six anymore and as much as I wanted to reach for exuberance, I don’t think I have it in me anymore, and it would’ve been fake if I’d tried to be like, ‘We’re gonna escape and run away and be excited!’ Cause we’re not. We’re right in it.”

Springsteen’s romantic view of the world gave him his charm, but his understanding of the struggle within it is what made him great. Where most skew towards Born To Run’s sepia, Spanish Love Songs live in the grime and greyscale of the records Slocum references. He had his exuberant phase playing in bands prior to Spanish Love Songs, but at thirty-one his recent output is anything but.

“God bless anybody who can write a romantic, happy song, but I can’t. I had an old lyric that I tried to use for so long: Every time I try to write a love song I end up sounding like an asshole. That’s pretty much how I feel about it.” 

It’s fitting to have found Slocum fretting finances earlier tonight (after spending most of the drive to the Netherlands from Germany doing the same) because on an album full of concerns, none are more prominent than economic hardship. “Well we’re gonna waste our days getting outpriced of our apartments / Hoping we won’t go homeless cause we sure as shit ain’t moving home,” he sings on lead-single “Losers.” “Don’t you know you were born to die poor, man” is a musing the band somehow translate into a heart-swelling chorus on part two of that song, before outright defying Young Bruce’s philosophy by declaring “We know damn well there ain’t a promised land” in the next verse.

Anyone who has had to work a second job to pay rent or swallow their pride and ask for money will find a line from their own mind sung somewhere on the record, and find it delivered with an authenticity only achievable by someone who has actually seen what life in the mire looks like. Given that that mire seems to be growing, it’s no surprise that a generation of gig-economy futilists are finding a connection with Spanish Love Songs’… uh, songs.

“I can’t recall a time in my life where my parents or me weren’t worried about money,” Dylan says of those lyrics’ origin. “When I was younger, my dad was in construction, so if it rained for a month he’d be out of work. There were years where it was pretty lean. As I got into high school, they started to do better, both working pretty successful jobs. Then I went to college and tried to scam the American education the best I could for money—still came out in tremendous debt—and then the economy collapsed. My parents lost their house, my dad lost his job… all that shit.

“Since then, I’ve mostly been in LA as an artist. I’ve lived month-to-month since I graduated college, and even in college I only wasn’t because I was living off loans that I now owe. I worked my ass off in college, but I still had loans. It was an incredible freedom, then an incredible burden to have put on somebody at nineteen years old. Most people—everybody, maybe—are stressed about money. Even things you don’t always realize is money, is money. Healthcare is money, climate change is money, mental health is definitely money. Everything comes down to money and capitalism. Y’know, the bane of our existence.”

Though rooted in personal experience, this is Slocum looking more outwardly with his writing. Schmaltz was a record of personal struggle, a near-diary entry collection of depressive songs written to pop punk melodies to give them a glimmer of hope. Having spent a few years touring the world on that record, seeing that the world’s problems aren’t all that different from place to place, he had a lot to write about; and it was never going to be just a ‘sad guy on tour’ record. Even if it sort of is.

“Those albums are stupid,” Dylan says. “No one needs another one. Unless you’re doing something really interesting with your sad, lonely touring songs, in which case fine. But they better not be about you.

“A lot of the songs on this album are definitely a dude traveling the world being sad, but focusing that outwards on why. Like sure I miss home, but maybe I’m actually depressed because I see people struggling in a place that’s not my own and it’s like, ‘Fuck, that reminds me of home’.”

Away from money, some of the album’s most striking lyrical moments deal with addiction, incarceration and gentrification. Ever a cynic, even towards himself, Slocum was keen to ensure he didn’t come across as preachy when writing about these issues.

“I’m not trying to pass judgement,” Dylan says. “I hate songs that are like ‘there’s something happening and you suck for not doing something about it’. That’s not helpful. That’s bad political music. You’re selling something you’ve latched onto for the purpose of calling it out, but not doing anything.”

Along with the new album, SLS posted a reading list of charity organizations that deal with finding solutions to each of the topics in each of the songs.

“No one wants to be told they’re wrong, I have no interest in judging anybody. All I want to do is tell a version of the story of people in these situations and let people feel however they feel. If you listen to ‘Kick’ and you wanna judge that person for doing heroin and dying, you’re bringing your own baggage to that. I’m just giving you a portrait of somebody I know.”

Slocum was offered a way out of the paycheck-to-paycheck life he sings about recently. Having moved to LA out of college with the dream of writing movies, he’d worked his way into a decent position and then quit to pursue Spanish Love Songs as it started to take off. A bold decision for someone with financial worries on his mind, but one he ultimately couldn’t resist.

“I fought against doing this for a long time.” He admits after a long sip of the drink he wasn’t going to have. “Music’s hard and I knew what I was getting into. I’ve played in bands since I was fifteen and wanted to do this all my life, but there’s a reason I’m thirty-one and just now taking it seriously.

“I had a pretty decent job in Hollywood working for a director and in the last year before I was about to leave to do the band for real, I got offered to come on as a junior executive somewhere and have a salary and a company car and all that bullshit. I was like ‘Ah, man, this sucks.’ I don’t think I would have lasted that long working for somebody else and having that responsibility of going to an office every day, but it was tempting. There was a year where between my three different jobs I made something like $50,000 and it was the most eye-opening year of my life. That’s not even a lot of money but at least I had health insurance!”

In hindsight, Slocum is happy with his decision to chase the dream. He’s proud to say that the band has been run so tightly that they’ve never lost money on a tour. When you’ve been broke forever, “You learn to spend every dime the way it’s meant to be spent,” he credits for that accolade. But even with things go well, there’s a reality to their situation as a band in a world that doesn’t compensate artists properly.

“When you’re a band there are two spaces, one is that you’re down there and you’re never going to make it. Not because you’re not good enough; that’s just how it feels. The other stage is ‘We’ve made it in the sense that we’re a working band and we’ve survived that first stage.’ And then there’s a huge gap between those two. We’re in that gap right now, and so many bands never even make it there, to the point where we can almost see a future doing this.”

With how well the campaign for the new album seems to be going, you’d think that a band like theirs would feel like they had the potential to do this for a long time, but Slocum still doesn’t seem to feel assured of a long-term career in music. In any career but art, the aptitude in their field shown by he and his bandmates would see them living comfortable lives. But as he says with a level of accepting flippancy that’s more telling than if he’d been resigned or even indignant, “We just don’t value art that way.”

As he finishes his drink and gets ready to head back to the venue before doors open, he’s asked what the dream of success looks like for a guy in a band today.

“Best case scenario is that you die on stage,” he answers, without missing a beat. “You get to play music until you’re of an age that you’re really old, and then you just… die. While still playing music for a living. That sounds fine to me.”

Slocum knows it’s an on-brand answer, but haven’t they all been? 

“I’m not kidding when I say it and I’m not saying it for any reason, but life is just fucking long and fucking hard. And it’s not fun a lot of the time. But it’s beautiful. And there are a lot of cool things to do. I mean, I’m playing in a band and we’re in Amsterdam hanging out with friends drinking cool beers and eating cool food. That’s gotta be better than going to an office and living comfortably. Right?”