Words by Ian Morales. Photos provided.
It seems these days there are two sides to every great punk rock frontman: his black tee-wearing punk-rockin’ side, and his acoustic-strumming, flannel-wearing, straw-chewing country side. Mike Herrera of MxPx has his version of an Americana band with Tumbledown. Tim Barry, who began with Virginia punks Avail, has made a name for himself more recently as a folk singer. Likewise for Lagwagon frontman Joey Cape.
Earlier this year, No Use For A Name frontman and Fat Wreck Chords recording artist Tony Sly released his first solo album, 12 Song Program. Inspired more by Bob Dylan than NOFX, 12 Step Program is Sly’s take on the kind of singer/songwriter stuff you’d see on Pitchfork, not Alt Press. It’s stripped-down to just Sly’s vocals, and everything else is unplugged. New audiences are hearing Tony Sly, unaware he’s a star in the punk world.
I caught up with Sly when he was in Austin recently and discussed the album, his own identity separate from his pop-punk roots and thoughts about Fat Mike. Sly also shared his plans for writing a new No Use For a name record after he gets back from touring over seas. He is quite the machine that Tony Sly.
When I first learned what the title of your solo album was 12 Song Program, I immediately thought of it referencing the recovery program for alcoholics.
Tony: It totally does. The image of the record is a guy sitting at a bar next to a juke box, which implies that the music that he is listening to is his way of recovering. It gives away the play on the phrase.
Is that a personal reference for you at all?
Tony: Not really, because I’m not an alcoholic or anything. Writing wise, yes. If you consider each song a step to recovery. That’s kind of the way I look at it. I know that may sound kind of lame, but I thought it sounded cool to say that. In all seriousness, that’s why it is kind of called that. The lyrics were so personal on the record that it ended up turning into a therapeutic experience. For me, that is why the title is perfect.
Is the whole acoustic, solo record, thing still surprising people, given they are so used to you being in No Use For A Name?
Tony: I like it when it surprises people. The biggest compliment for me is when they tell me that it doesn’t sound like No Use For A Name, even though it is the same songwriter and same singer. It sounds like more of a folky kind of experience. Obviously, I am going to get pigeonholed. I’ve read reviews for this record and they’ll say this just sounds like a No Use For A Name demo.
Tony: To me, that guy didn’t really listen to the record. He didn’t read the lyrics and didn’t really check it out. The influences are outside of the box. Think more Dylan, The Pogues and things like that. That’s stuff that I don’t really draw influence from when doing No Use For A Name.
Are those kinds of records something you’ve always listened?
Tony: It is stuff I’ve always listened to. When I’m writing a No Use For A Name record, I start thinking about my favorite punk records like Suffer and Against The Grain, all the great Bad Religion and NOFX records. Those are all the bands I grew up listening to and use to drum up my influences. There’s a part of me that still loves being a kid at the punk show. I love it.
I totally feel you on that. I’m 30 and so not the kid at the punk show.
Tony: You do get it then. I still have that young heart. I love the violent aspect of it. I don’t mean like someone getting their face punched in but rather the violent excitement of punk rock. When I’m writing that, it’s completely different from writing an acoustic solo song.
From what I understand, this acoustic album has been years in the making. Is that true?
Tony: In a way it has. I’ve always written slower, acoustic songs on the side, but I’ve never concentrated on making a full album. No Use For A Name always has a good amount of acoustic songs. There were three on our last record. Those kind of songs are going to end up on a No Use For A Name record anyway, but I kind of don’t want them to anymore.
Tony: Well, I want to separate it. I want my stuff to be on my records and I want No use For A Name records to be punk. If this acoustic record came out as a No Use For A Name record, and everything was left they way it is now, it would get slaughtered in the press. It’s just because of the name. People would say “Oh, they went totally acoustic and it sucks.” So it is nice to have your own name to put on it.
I don’t think a lot of people know it is the same guy from No Use For A Name until they read about it. Is that the case you think? And does that bother you at all?
Tony: It’s rad actually. They put the little sticker on the album, but that’s it really. What I like is that I have gotten some airplay on folk radio programs. I don’t think they know or care that it is some guy in No Use For A Name.
That audience won’t know or care, I don’t think. Doe the response from that new audience surprise you?
Tony: It does, and I keep getting those people’s interest. It is good to have that foothold with No Use For A Name because without it, I wouldn’t be able to go on tour right away. I’d have to start bare bones. I just recently went to Europe with Joey Cape and we did really well because “It’s the singer/songwriters from Lagwagon and No Use For A Name.” I’m not going to lie: People want to hear those songs.
I’d assume you would have to perform some No Use For A Name songs, to please those fans and also to fill up a set. Those 12 songs don’t take up a full set do they?
Tony: Out in Europe I was playing for an hour and a half, so I did play No Use For A Name songs too. I don’t’ want to escape that completely because that is part of who I am. I’m just happy that there are new people liking the folk kind of thing.
I think to that punk rock fans aren’t as limited in taste as they maybe once were. Fans of punk bands will follow their favorite artists or singers into their side projects or solo projects that aren’t punk. The first thing that came to mind was Mike Herrera and Tumbledown. Tim Barry recently and his fans from Avail follow his solo stuff. It seems accepted by punk audiences to listen to other music if it is made by good punk rock artists.
Tony: What about Chuck Ragan (of Hot Water Music)? There was no way I’d put two and two together. Tim Barry doesn’t sound like Avail at all. To me, I think it is really cool. Maybe that is something those guys have been harboring for a longtime.
I think older punk rock fans like myself who grew up with Warped Tour in the ‘90s are more open to liking new genres of music than fans of other genres. Typically, I see indie kids just being into just indie. The same can be said for a lot of metal fans. Why do punk audiences differ in that sense?
Tony: I think you’re absolutely right. On that tour with Joey Cape in Europe, Jon Snodgrass from Drag The River came out and he was the opener. He is like the real deal and people were into him. He is a real country singer. His voice is like a warm blanket and his guitar playing is just amazing. I learned a lot from that guy. It was nice to have that in addition to Joey and I up there. It can be seen that way, Joey and I just up there playing stupid pop songs.
Explain that one to me. “Stupid pop songs?”
Tony: If you take away the punk from some of our songs, my No Use For A Name songs and Joey’s Lagwagon songs, they are super-poppy. That is why I am careful about which songs I play. You just don’t’ want it to sound to lame.
So what are you doing differently to prevent them from being “lame”?
Tony: I’ve been rearranging some No Use For A Name songs to sound more folky. People seemed to appreciate that fact that I put some work into it and not just playing my two-finger bar chords. I’m playing them all out in full chord. With No Use, I just play power chords.
Are you getting any flack from your peers that you know of about 12 Song Program?
Tony: All my peers are doing this sort of thing too. All my other peers are really supportive. Fat Mike is real supportive. He never gave me shit. He was the one to say “I love these songs.”
Was there any sort of hesitancy from Fat Wreck Chords to put out 12 Song Program because it wasn’t a punk record?
Tony: No, not really. I think it’s because, one, they put out the Joey Cape acoustic split in 2004 and, two, I’ve put out so much stuff with them that it’s really not that weird.
I had to ask, because well, labels can be labels sometimes if you catch my drift.
Tony: For sure. I told Mike that maybe it was his gateway to signing other bands like this. I mean he should. He should try and branch out. Labels like SideOneDummy have MxPx, Flogging Molly and then Chuck Ragan. They have an interesting mix of all kinds of shit and I think that’s cool.
I know you performed at SXSW this year, but tell me a little about what you saw at SXSW as a fan.
Tony: I saw The Spits. Fat Mike loves The Spits. They are like his favorite punk band. They played for like 20 minutes and there was a lot of feedback in between songs. It reminds me of The Ramones. It is just real crazy but they were really good. I guess NOFX is doing a split seven-inch with them. Then I saw a little bit of Sum 41. They’re my friends. I did more walking than seeing bands because of some of the lines. There were even wristband artist lines, and there were just as many artists as there were people attending. I was like, “Really? Everyone’s an artist.”
After all the touring to support 12 Song Program, are you getting together with No Use For A Name for another record or tour?
Tony: After Joey Cape and I get back from touring in Canada, I am going to take some time off and write a new No Use record. Then, No Use is doing a co-headlining tour in Europe with Lagwagon. We are going to try and squeeze in playing Japan.
So we will never see you ever again here in the U.S. is what it’s looking like. Way to let us down…
Tony: [laughs] No, we are going to be here. I just have to write a new No Use record and see how this acoustic thing goes.
So do you have that acoustic itch now to record more songs after 12 Song Program?
Tony: Yeah, definitely. I already got new acoustic songs and now that things are working in that way; Joey wants to record another split. We are thinking of recording it for free at his house and just putting it out ourselves. I don’t know yet; we’ll see. I got some plans. It’s better than not having plans, I guess.
My last question for you is this: Assuming you were a brand new, unknown artist and 12 Song Program was your debut, which one song would you play for someone that you feel gives you the best chance to make a first impression?
Tony: I’d have to say track four, a song called “Already Won.” It’s catchy, it’s folky and doesn’t really sound too much like No Use For A Name. It brings you in immediately. It was the first song I wrote for the album.