Artist Interview: Skylar Sarkis of Taking Meds

Posted: by The Editor

I won’t waste time belaboring the point when Aaron’s already said it so well: Taking Meds is about to drop the best record of their career. Tomorrow they’ll release Dial M for Meds, an album that trades the gruff screams of previous releases for earworm hooks and the gnarled riffs for clean leads. It’s a swing for the New York quartet, but it pays off in spades. We spoke with vocalist/guitarist Skylar Sarkis about the more prominent ’90s alt rock influences on Dial M for Meds and his approach to lyrics this time around.

You guys are playing some shows with Smoking Popes starting tonight. How’d that come up?

Boring story–their agent hit up our agent. I don’t even know how they heard of us.

Maybe they were big Such Gold fans back in the day.

That’s not out of the realm of possibility.

A lot of the press materials for Dial M for Meds reference ’90s alt rock. Sugar comes up a lot, Archers of Loaf. This is pretty different from previous Taking Meds records. What accounts for the shift in sound here?

So there’s two things. We have never fit in anywhere–and that was the intention when we started. Such Gold had a sound expected, and we wanted a band where we could do anything we wanted. For the first five years of Taking Meds, we weren’t pressed about shit. If we got asked to play shit, cool, but if not, who cares. We’d put whatever on our records. When we started touring, though, we could gauge audience reactions. You want to say, “I don’t give a shit what anyone says about my band,” but at a certain point, you don’t fit in and you get sick of confused faces. That’s just a feeling, right? But the flipside is Ben [Kotin, guitars] and I were like, “All we listen to is rock and roll bands from the ’90s!” It started with early Merge band, like Archers of Loaf, but moved over from us listened to Polvo and Chavez to not listening to that. Especially me, at this point, I like Superchunk more now. I like Copper Blue so much. Ben got really into Dinosaur Jr., which explains all the solos. We were writing these songs, and they were cool, but it didn’t feel like we were going in any direction. I called Ben last summer–he writes the bulk of the riffs–and we realized on the last record how fun it was to write in traditional song structures. I wanted it to be catchier, more rock and roll. He sent me “Something Higher” and “Long Tooth,” and I was like, “Dude, these are cowboy chords.” He was like, “You wanted simpler,” and I said that that was exactly what I wanted. I always liked the ’90s math rock shit, and Ben and Jon Markson are the guys I spent the most time making music with, and they’re dudes who had long phases of loving super creative bands, but I am not that guy. The reason I play music is Bob Dylan. I learned to play guitar and sing with Bob Dylan. Now I want to listen to Lemonheads. I listen to Gin Blossoms weekly. You realize sometimes you have a roadblock in your head and that, really, nobody cares anyway. With this record, what’ll we lose? Fifty people? We could do whatever we wanted. But we do also hope more people like it. It’s embarrassing, but at a certain point, that’s how you think. We’re not a buzz band. We never popped off.

It seems like a lot of bands in the hardcore/post-hardcore sphere are pulling from more melodic ’90s alt rock stuff. Obviously there’s Drug Church, Militarie Gun, but even Scowl, Squint–what do you think, if you were to guess, accounts for this larger wave of bands tapping into the same well around the same time?

I’m not a cultural theorist, so maybe I’ll think of something better in an hour, but the first thing I think of is that in 2017 or so, in actual hardcore, kids started wearing nu metal shirts. It was no longer in the collective memory how fucking embarrassing nu metal was. I was ten at the time and I knew it was embarrassing, even liking The Unseen and shit. I still like those records, but you get into punk bands through Green Day or Anti-Flag or whatever, and I was pretty young listening to that kind of punk because it was easy. I didn’t like nu metal because it was uncool and commercial and most of it is terrible. But the collective memory forgot that, and now when it comes to ’90s stuff, bands have been saying that they like Guided by Voices since I was in Such Gold. But it was pop-punk bands! They’d say, “We wanted to channel Dinosaur Jr. on this record,” and it’s like, “Really? Did those songs make the record? You’re channeling Taking Back Sunday, bro.” First of all, though, some bands can do that and people don’t notice. But second, people forgot that ’90s radio rock was also embarrassing. But also, most of it aged well. I like those Goo Goo Dolls records from the ’90s, and maybe other people won’t agree.

No judgment here. Dizzy Up the Girl still rocks.

Oh yeah. That’s an example. And some people love Matchbox 20. They have some tracks, sure. That being said, many of the acts you’re talking about are doing stuff from those bands straight up. We’ve been doing ’90s indie rock the whole time we’ve been a band! I don’t know why no one noticed. Maybe it’s just because our name is stupid, maybe it’s because we came up around emo bands. Everyone called us emo or post-hardcore. I’m glad you asked this, because we said, “Alright, everyone’s doing ’90s alt rock? Let’s show you what the fuck we can do.” And I think we did it. But that shift, I think, when you weren’t there, everything looks cool. I love ’80s bands and I’ll tell my mom some new band I found and she’ll say they suck. It wasn’t cool at the time! It sounds cool now, though. Scowl in particular I think have gotten a lot cooler since they’ve started sounding like Hole.

There’s a lot of lines on here where you tell the audience not to take the lyrics seriously.

You don’t have to tell them. They already know.

That’s an interesting perspective to hear from a songwriter about songwriting, and I’m curious what your thought process is presenting yourself that way.  

When I was in seventh grade, me and my best friend at the time–still a dear friend, my buddy Evan–we read lyrics and would say some are good and some are bad and we’d write our own. They were terrible. To this day we send each other lyrics for input–it’s been over, like, twenty years we do this and give each other criticism. He’s a better writer than me, and he studied English, so it helps. There’s good and bad, and I always thought lyrics were so important. I spend months making sure the lyrics are where they need to be. Nobody fucking cares. Nobody gives a shit. Most of what’s popping has dog shit lyrics. No one cares. I just cannot not spend time on it, though. I can’t do that to myself. I tried to keep it simpler, but I still wanted to feel like it had my seal of approval. I think people should take it seriously, but they don’t. It doesn’t matter how I feel, really. Reality matters. That’s where that sentiment comes from. I resent the way music is consumed. Why are there words if they’re not important? And, look, even the music with bad lyrics, that doesn’t mean it’s bad music. A lot of it rocks! I just think lyrics should be more of a component. I love singer-songwriter stuff where the lyrics are upfront. They just need to be good. The words should have character, and they should show you something. If you say, “I’ve been so stressed lately / I need a release,” anyone could write that. Are you fucking kidding me? Learn how to do it or don’t do it.

So now I guess some of those lines are less instructive and more of a challenge. 

For sure. Having an expectation that people will consume the thing you make the way you want them to? That’s ridiculous. It’s your job to pique people’s interest. It’s an expression of frustration, yeah, but it’s also acceptance. I know it isn’t important, but I have to do it this way–I have to do it for me.

I think, on the topic of lyrics, is that I really appreciate the humor in a Taking Meds song. Even when it was less straightforwardly catchy there was always a sense of humor. 

I was always trying to make them into songs. That’s how you know I was in a band with musician musicians. They were writing for them, making riffs, and I was like, “There’s a melody in here somewhere!”

If you go back to the Skyler of a decade ago writing the first Taking Meds stuff and play him Dial M for Meds, what’ll he think?

That’s a great question. I think he’d like it. I was into Lemonheads already, and Superchunk–people say it sounds like Jawbreaker, and I don’t hear that, but I did like Jawbreaker. I think I’d like that. But the ’90s radio stuff is in my DNA, and it’ll always make me feel good. It reminds me of being so young–when you’re that young you’re happy. As a young kid, turn on the radio and I’m happy. That’s on this record, and I love that. I think being a punk kid, I could enjoy the album shamelessly as a pretentious twenty-three-year-old.

Catch Taking Meds on tour:

8/30, Space Ballroom, Hamden, CT
9/7, The Bug Jar, Rochester, NY
9/8, Mahall’s, Lakewood, OH
9/9, Beat Kitchen, Chicago, IL
9/10, Lager House, Detroit, MI
10/27, Fest, Gainesville, FL

Dial M for Meds is out tomorrow on Smartpunk.

Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison

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